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As reported in China Snapshot for the past few months, the protests in Hong Kong have arisen out of the concerns of residents: The protesters oppose Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong autonomy, want their local government to listen to public opinion, and wish to freely elect their leaders.
Yet on the mainland, the Chinese government has spun a different narrative with the help of state-controlled media, censors, and internet trolls. As the narrative goes, a small group of radical protesters, backed by the United States and other foreign governments, is wreaking havoc in the city and urging for an independent Hong Kong. The government has described the demonstrators’ recent airport protests as “near-terrorist acts.”
How does a country change the narrative and distort what is happening on the ground?
First, China’s so-called Great Firewall blocks online reports from foreign media. It blocks Chinese access to social media used internationally, and blocks any posts supportive of Hong Kong. Initially, Chinese media didn’t report on the Hong Kong protests, even as 2 million people peacefully took to the streets.
As protesters grew increasingly restless, citing unmet demands and excessive use of force by Hong Kong police, they began making more aggressive moves: They broke into and vandalized Hong Kong’s Legislative Council Complex, splashed ink on the Chinese emblem, threw the Chinese flag into the harbor, and in one case even threw gasoline bombs at the police. Chinese media quickly seized the opportunity to broadcast images of protesters disrespecting the government.
What the Chinese media left out: Police firing tear gas into a subway station. Peaceful protesters singing hymns. Pro-Beijing mobs attacking protesters. Police in riot gear chasing and beating protesters with batons. Undercover police slamming unarmed protesters to the ground, resulting in a pool of blood on the sidewalk.
Most notably, these media don’t explain why Hong Kong residents are protesting. For patriotic Chinese citizens who can access only Chinese news sources, the police look like heroes fighting a deranged group of China-hating separatists.
Second, the media has fueled conspiracy theories. Last week, pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao published photos of pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Nathan Law meeting with U.S. diplomat Julie Eadeh. The newspaper also printed the names of Eadeh’s husband and young children. China’s official state broadcaster, CCTV, claimed Eadeh was an American “black hand” influencing the Hong Kong protests.
“I don’t think that leaking an American diplomat’s private information, pictures, names of their children—I don’t think that that’s a formal protest,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus responded. “That is what a thuggish regime would do. That’s not how a responsible nation would behave.” She went on to say that it was normal for diplomats to meet with protesters and opposition parties in other countries.
Third: all-out lies. On Sunday, the most violent day of protests thus far, a police officer shot a beanbag round at protesters, blinding a woman in her right eye. The woman was providing first aid to the protesters. Yet CCTV said fellow protesters injured her. On the CCTV website, a reporter claimed to have captured a photo of the woman counting money and claimed she was responsible for paying protesters to join the demonstration.
The same day, the China Daily posted on Chinese social media a video of a protester with an airsoft gun and claimed it was an M320 grenade launcher used by the United States Army, reported The New York Times. In response to the Chinese media’s coverage, Chinese netizens are calling for their government to take stronger action against Hong Kong.
At times, the protesters’ own actions feed into the narrative Beijing is promoting. This week, protesters held sit-ins at the Hong Kong International Airport, causing airlines to cancel hundreds of flights. While the demonstration remained peaceful on Monday, it took a violent turn on Tuesday night as the massive group of protesters surrounded a man they accused of being an undercover cop. They tied his wrists together with plastic zip ties and kicked and punched him until he fainted.
When medics and police tried to get the injured man into an ambulance, protesters blocked their way. Police in riot gear arrived on the scene, rushing protesters and pushing them to the ground and beating them. At one point, a police officer pulled out a gun after a protester began beating him with the officer’s baton.
Protesters also surrounded a man who was wearing a yellow press vest and taking close-up photos of protesters. When protesters asked him to show his press pass, he refused and tried to leave, according to Hong Kong Free Press. Suspicious that he was a spy faking as a journalist, protesters tied his hands and feet and beat him. He was later also taken away by ambulance.
The man turned out to be Fu Guohao, a journalist for Global Times, a state-run nationalist tabloid. A clip of Fu yelling “I support Hong Kong police, you can hit me now,” went viral on WeChat, making him a hero in China. The overseas edition of the People’s Daily on Wednesday printed a front-page commentary stating, “Using the sword of the law to stop violence and restore order is overwhelmingly the most important and urgent task for Hong Kong!”
In the United States, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, has said he would introduce legislation to stop the sale of munitions and crowd control equipment to the Hong Kong police. The police have used at least 1,800 canisters of tear gas since the protests began.
“I am appalled and outraged by Hong Kong police and their escalating violence and brutality towards peaceful protesters and journalists,” tweeted McGovern. “I also call on the Trump administration to stop sending mixed signals on Hong Kong. Instead, they should suspend transfers of police and crowd control equipment to Hong Kong police. America must be on the side of those peacefully protesting for democracy and the rule of law.”
Luxury apology tour:
Chinese netizens are successfully pressuring luxury apparel brands like Versace, Coach, and Givenchy to apologize after the companies listed Hong Kong as a separate country from China on their T-shirts.