The results were so shocking that mainland Chinese media didn’t know how to respond. Some outlets didn’t mention the election results. Others returned to oft-used scripts, accusing the West of swaying the election.
The inaccurate mainland narrative about the protests and election is a prime example of how the Chinese government uses propaganda to further its interests. Communist officials, worried that Hong Kong’s democracy movement could spread elsewhere in China, have spun their own version of events and censored news in the mainland. Articles in state-run media focus on protester violence rather than on the reasons behind the upheaval or police action.
Targets of the propaganda include Protestant and Catholic churches that have opened up as rest stations for protesters. Beijing—the seat of Chinese government—has also used more indirect ways to pressure and influence Hong Kong’s Christian community, including threatening to cut off ministries to mainland China.
HONG KONG’S DEMOCRACY MOVEMENT dates back to the 1980s, when the city was still under British rule. Before the handover in 1997, Hong Kong Gov. David Wilson introduced the first direct elections in 1991, with Hong Kong residents electing a third of their legislature. The Sino-British Joint Declaration promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy that would allow democracy to blossom in the city, giving the people a chance to elect their chief executive.
Yet in election after election, China thwarted democracy’s progress. In 2014, Hong Kongers grew frustrated after Beijing announced they could vote for the chief executive only if Beijing chose the candidates, leading to the 79-day Umbrella Movement. Frustrations against the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government increased as it disqualified elected pro-democracy lawmakers and proposed the extradition bill that set off the current protests.
Police brutality against young protesters this year, along with the Hong Kong leadership’s refusal to listen to most protester demands, has brought more demonstrators into the streets and provoked more violence from front-line protesters. Police have arrested nearly 6,000 people.
But in the mainland, Chinese citizens hear a different narrative: Hong Kong protesters are a small, violent group seeking independence from China—their true grievance is sky-high rent prices and a lack of affordable housing—police are the true heroes in Hong Kong, especially the officer nicknamed “Bald Lau Sir,” who became famous after pointing a shotgun at protesters.
Chinese state media paint a conspiracy of a U.S.-backed “color revolution” meant to topple the Chinese government. As proof, they point to meetings between Hong Kong democracy leaders and U.S. officials, as well as to Hong Kong protesters who wave American flags and sing the American national anthem during demonstrations.
After President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act on Nov. 27, the Chinese government claimed the United States had “clearly interfered” with the city’s internal affairs. The act requires the U.S. State Department annually to assess if Hong Kong is autonomous enough to continue receiving preferential trade benefits and also requires sanctions on officials responsible for suppressing the city’s freedoms.