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State of distortion

Chinese propaganda is targeting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters and the churches that support them

State of distortion

People line up to vote outside of a polling place in Hong Kong. (Vincent Yu/AP)

At 8 a.m. on a Sunday, a line of people outside of St. Eugene de Mazenod Oblate Primary School in Kowloon City snaked past apartment buildings, breakfast shops, and real estate offices. White-haired grandmothers in wheelchairs, young people staring at their cell phones, and parents holding tight to wriggly children waited for nearly an hour to vote for their local district councilor. 

For a few days before the Nov. 24 election, Hong Kong enjoyed a rare reprieve from the often-violent protests that have characterized the city in recent months. The election was the first since the pro-democracy protests began in the former British colony in June, and activists took a break from demonstrations in order to ensure nothing interfered with the vote. They hoped Hong Kongers would turn out in high numbers and elect pro-democracy candidates, proving voters were sympathetic to the protesters’ cause.

Meanwhile, in mainland China, media referred to a “silent majority” in Hong Kong who opposed the protesters and would surely vote for pro-Beijing candidates willing to reestablish order. According to Foreign Policy, state-run Chinese media had prepared prewritten articles lauding a win for the establishment.

When Nov. 24 arrived, polling stations around Hong Kong saw enormous turnouts: By the time they closed at 10:30 p.m., a record-breaking 71 percent of registered voters had cast a ballot, up from 47 percent in 2015. 

The results were even more astonishing: Pro-democracy candidates gained control of 17 of the 18 districts, winning nearly 90 percent of district council seats. Even typically pro-establishment neighborhoods threw their support to pro-democracy candidates. By the early hours of Monday morning, ecstatic Hong Kongers were popping champagne in celebration on the streets.

Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

Local residents outside a polling station in Hong Kong celebrate the results of the district council elections. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)

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.

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Pro-democracy protesters rally at Edinburgh Place, Hong Kong. (KIRAN RIDLEY)

While Hong Kong residents see the protest movement as a fight to maintain promised freedoms and to vote for their leaders, mainland Chinese instead see an anti-China movement. They focus on instances where protesters have violently attacked pro-Beijing supporters, including one man whom protesters set on fire. Images of protesters burning Chinese flags or throwing flags into the harbor are also widely shared and condemned in the mainland. 

Brian Yu, a 38-year-old banker in Hong Kong from mainland China, said that Chinese censors delete from social media sites posts and articles containing facts about police violence or protester motivations. But posts that focus on protester violence remain untouched. As a result, most of his friends in the mainland have bought into China’s propaganda. 

Yu (WORLD changed his name for his protection since he is a Communist Party member) said he was in second grade in 1989 when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square to quash China’s democracy movement. Afterward, he and his classmates were forced to attend a class on Saturday afternoons about how China had been humiliated by the West and Japan and only the Chinese Communist Party was able to save China. 

“That message is taught throughout your education, even when you are getting your master’s degree,” Yu said. “Even if you didn’t want to believe it, eventually you will.”

When the internet first became available in China, Yu remembers having access to a wide range of information, and public intellectuals often wrote freely on the web. But the Chinese government began developing the “Great Firewall” in the late 1990s, and now China’s internet is closely censored and controlled. Under President Xi Jinping, China has become more aggressive in spreading its authoritarian ideology. 

SINCE THE PROTESTS BEGAN, state-owned Hong Kong newspapers Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po have criticized not only protesters but groups supporting them. One target: Protestant and Catholics churches that have opened up their facilities to provide sanctuary for protesters.

With protests spreading to different neighborhoods in Hong Kong, churches have invited protesters in to rest, drink water, eat snacks, use the restroom, speak with pastors, and pray. In the earlier months, the addresses and opening hours of the churches would be posted on Facebook and shared through WhatsApp.

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People in Hong Kong pray for fellow protesters. (KIRAN RIDLEY)

But that practice stopped after newspapers and videos publicly attacked several churches. An Aug. 7 article in Wen Wei Po claimed that St. Vincent Church, which is attached to Wong Tai Sin Catholic Primary School, “became a shelter for thugs under the guise of religion” by allowing protesters to enter its building. The church allowed anyone, regardless of religion, to come in to get a drink of water, recharge a phone, pray, or talk to clergy.

The Wen Wei Po article also criticized a picture posted on Mother of Good Counsel Church’s Facebook page: The image showed Jesus hugging a protester with the words “Child, are you tired? Come to me.” The article claimed it showed the church condoning violent criminals.

Ta Kung Pao devoted a full page on Oct. 7 to accusing Chinese Methodist Church in Wan Chai of harboring criminals. It said that after police released tear gas on a “rioting mob,” the “thugs” all seemed to run in the same direction toward Chinese Methodist Church, where the church provided them with medical aid, food, and a rest area. When the church was full, some then went to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, where nuns patted them on the shoulder and a priest told them, “I will protect you,” according to the newspaper.

Professor Ying Fuk-Tsang, the director of the divinity school at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the Chinese government is attacking churches because it is aware of the large role they have played in bringing an end to communism in Eastern European countries such as Poland and East Germany. It sees Christianity as a Western religion and fears churches will take part in wresting control away from the Chinese Communist Party.

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Professor Ying Fuk-Tsang at Chinese University of Hong Kong (KIRAN RIDLEY)

The government also knows the large influence Christians have in Hong Kong: Half of all schools were started by Catholic and Protestant churches, along with a quarter of social services. Some state media accuse churches of indoctrinating schoolchildren with anti-China beliefs. 

China has long tried to influence Protestant churches in Hong Kong by inviting them to the mainland to network with pastors from the government-approved Three-Self churches. At the same time, they try to show Hong Kong pastors how well China is doing, giving them a type of patriotic education, Ying said. The pastors then feel pressured to self-censor and think twice before criticizing the government in case it could affect their China ministry.

Catholic churches feel similar pressure. Jackie Hung, project officer of Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, said that after the incident at St. Vincent Church, parents from the attached school called to complain that protesters were allowed onto the premises. Hong Kong’s education department also sent a letter saying the school could not be used to provide shelter.

Hung’s organization, which partners with other groups to organize prayer meetings and rallies, is located on the sixth floor of a building belonging to the Holy Cross Church in Sai Wan Ho. On Nov. 11, a police officer shot a 21-year-old protester in the torso by the Sai Wan Ho subway station, minutes away from the church. Later in the day, as protesters took to the streets, some ran into the building to escape from police. But police pushed the door open and violently subdued the protesters on church property before arresting them and taking them away. Since then, the church has closed its doors to protesters.

While the Justice and Peace Commission has long supported the democracy movement through nonviolent means, it currently feels stuck between two sides, Hung said. “On the church side, they think we are radical; on the civil society side, they think we are conservative."


Siding with the weak

Former Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun has long been outspokenly supportive of democracy in Hong Kong and critical of the Chinese Communist Party. Now 87, he feels there is very little he can still do: The young people in the protest movement refuse to listen to older democracy activists. Still, he co-founded the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helps pay for bail, legal fees, and medical aid for protesters arrested or hurt by police. 

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Former Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun at Salesian Missionary House (KIRAN RIDLEY)

Zen criticizes the Holy See’s silence about the situation in Hong Kong and interprets it as an effort to appease the Chinese government. The Vatican has long sought to restore diplomatic relations with Beijing, which have been cut off since 1951. In 2018, the Vatican and Beijing reached an agreement on how to select bishops, one of the major sticking points in their relationship. 

The goal of the deal is to bring the underground church out of hiding and unite the Catholic Church in China. Yet Catholics in the underground church have faced great persecution for remaining faithful to the pope in Rome, only to have their leader ask them to join the government-sanctioned church. “They are always trying to appease the Chinese government, I don’t know for what purpose,” Zen said. “They sold our church and gained nothing in return.”

In late November, a journalist asked Pope Francis his views about the Hong Kong protest. Francis compared it to other protests around the world: “I respect peace and I ask for peace for all these countries that have problems.”

But Zen dismissed such neutrality: “In this moment, there are the persecutor and the persecuted, the strong oppressors and the weak, suffering people,” he said. “We have to be on the side of the weak.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.