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What People In China Are Hearing About The Protests In Hong Kong

CREDIT: AP
CREDIT: AP

According to Chinese state media, thousands have taken to the streets in Hong Kong to celebrate 65 years of communist rule.

Of course, the nearly-100,000 protesters have actually taken to Hong Kong’s Central business district to demand democratic elections under an agreement that China has continually tried to sidestep. But as the protests continue, Chinese censors have doubled down on social and traditional media to keep the unrest from gaining traction in the mainland.

“The Communist party is very clear that if the general election were to indeed happen in Hong Kong, people from many places in the mainland would want the same thing,” Hu Jia, a Chinese dissident in Beijing, told the Guardian.

Protesters in Hong Kong, which is technically a part of China though its citizens enjoy more freedom than those on the mainland under a “one state, two systems” arrangement, are calling on China to uphold its part of a 1997 agreement to allow them to elect their top leader — a position that is currently appointed by Beijing.

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“These activists are jeopardizing the global image of Hong Kong, and presenting the world with the turbulent face of the city,” read one anonymous op-ed in Global Times, a state-run English and Chinese newspaper.

“As Chinese mainlanders, we feel sorrow over the chaos in Hong Kong,” it continued. “Radical opposition forces in Hong Kong should be blamed.”

Despite these few efforts by state media to control the narrative on Hong Kong, it seems like its containment is the biggest effort. Li Xiaoling, who lives in Guangzhou, a Chinese city near Hong Kong, says that some people from the mainland planned to join in on the protests in Hong Kong. But, she estimated that more than 90 percent of people in China were totally unaware of what’s going on in Hong Kong.

“The media can’t report this, as they have to follow the central propaganda orders and can only publish what the government wants them to, and they would never spread this news,” Li told The New York Times. “So no one can watch it on TV or online.”

This week on Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging site in China, censorship hit a year high, with censors blocking 152 out of every 10,000 posts, according to WeiboScope, a Hong Kong University project that analyzes censorship trends. Words like “Hong Kong” and “police” appeared frequently in censored posts, along with more seemingly innocuous ones like “support,” “share,” and “pictures,” which seems to suggest efforts to quash calls to action. Authorities also blocked access to Instagram, one of the only foreign social media sites accessible in China.

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As ProPublica pointed out in a months’ long investigation of Weibo, Chinese users have adapted to the rigid policies against freedom of speech, capitalizing on the typographic tricks afforded by Chinese characters to sub in a phrase like “eye field” for the word “liberty” because of how similar the two look. Last year, authorities blocked the phrase “big yellow duck” after it came to refer Tiananmen Square after a doctored photo from the 1989 massacre there featuring rubber duckies as tanks made its rounds.

But the tight censorship in China doesn’t mean that no news of the protests is filtering through the country’s digital and human censors. While the central propaganda department in Beijing demanded that any mention of the protest in Hong Kong be deleted, some newspapers did carry an article from Xinhua, a state news agency, which called them an “illegal gathering.” The article referred to an announcement in August that candidates for Hong Kong’s be approved by Beijing as a decision that carries “’unshakable’ legal status and force” that “heeded opinion from all walks of life in Hong Kong.”