Striking photos, videos and news about Hong Kong’s ongoing democracy protests and clashes with police have exploded across TV, radio, newspapers worldwide in recent days, to say nothing of Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. But thanks to a near-complete information blackout by Chinese censors, most people in mainland China remain unaware of the situation in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Major state-run news outlets carried only brief mentions of the confrontations, if any, and the subject has been censored off popular mainland-based social media services, including Weibo and Weixin, also known as WeChat.
Twitter and Facebook have been blocked for years by China’s Great Firewall, and now Instagram -- one of the few major Western social media services to escape the pinch of China’s censors -- appears to have joined the roster of inaccessible services, perhaps because of the Hong Kong protests.
Instead, Chinese users of Weibo were preoccupied Monday with a story on how a Chinese celebrity couple had reconciled; it attracted over 440 million views, making it the top trending topic on the service. “Selfies with the Chinese flag” has been among the top 10 trending topics on the site for over a week, as part of the Chinese government’s efforts to push celebrations of the country’s upcoming 65th National Day on Wednesday.
Authorities in Beijing are loath to give mainland citizens any close-up look at Hong Kong’s protests, lest mainlanders get any ideas about organizing their own challenges to what Chinese officials call “social stability.”
“The government’s restriction on related information is definitely the main reason why ordinary people in China have not shown strong interests in the situation in Hong Kong right now,” said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
A search for keywords such as “Occupy Central” in Chinese on Weibo will return a familiar if frustrating message for mainland info-seekers: “your results can not be displayed in accordance with relevant laws and regulations.” While users can still search for “Hong Kong,” the results are mostly unrelated to the protest. Human censors deployed by Weibo are constantly deleting relevant content.
Social media’s utility as an organizing tool and as a means to influence public opinion is well recognized by the organizers of the protests in Hong Kong. This summer, leaders of Hong Kong’s democracy movement even conducted a nonbinding territory-wide referendum mainly via online and mobile voting applications, attracting about 800,000 participants in the region of 7 million people.
Instagram, the popular photo-sharing app often employed by Chinese users to follow and comment on foreign celebrities including the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and his wife, was blocked by China’s Great Firewall on Monday, joining a long list of foreign-based social media services that are inaccessible in China.
“Instagram’s block in China is likely due to the ongoing democracy reform protests in Hong Kong,” wrote Steven Millward in a post on China-focused technology website Tech in Asia. The post said over 6,000 photos on Instagram had been tagged with #OccupyCentral.
As for the more traditional press, Chinese authorities once again displayed their tight grip on the nation’s state-run media.
On the Chinese-language homepage of the official New China News Agency and the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, there was not a single story mentioning the protests in Hong Kong. Front pages of the usually liberal Beijing News and Southern Metropolis Daily have been filled with two unrelated stories: One about a directive from the State Council on government meetings; another on the extradition of a corrupted official, as part the government’s efforts to showcase the success of its anti-graft campaign.
The stories about the Hong Kong protests that have appeared in Chinese media have stressed the perspective of mainland Chinese authorities, denouncing the demonstrations as illegal gatherings. A story on the popular news portal Sina.com popped up on the screen of each Weibo user, featuring a headline quoting the Beijing-backed Hong Kong chief executive, Leung Chun-ying. “Deployment of the People’s Liberation Army is a rumor,” he said, denying that troops from the mainland military would be deployed in Hong Kong.
China Digital Times, a website that monitors media freedom and censorship in mainland China, reported on what it says was a leaked directive from the Communist Party’s propaganda department instructing all websites to “immediately clear away information about Hong Kong students violently assaulting the government and about ‘Occupy Central.’” The directive added, according to the Digital Times: “Promptly report any issues. Strictly manage interactive channels, and resolutely delete harmful information.”
Even some foreign media Chinese-language websites, targeting mainland readers, have come under fire for not releasing reports on the protests in Hong Kong in a timely fashion.
“Reuters Chinese and [Wall Street Journal] Chinese are not reporting anything related to the Hong Kong protests,” complained managers of greatfire.org, a well-known website that monitors censorship in China. “Reuters U.S. and WSJ U.S. both feature the protest as headline items.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Chinese site published a story covering the protests after being singled out by the greatfire.org -- 24 hours after its English report first appeared, though the reason for the delay was unclear. The New York Times’ Chinese-language site was updated along with its English language site.
Tommy Yang in the Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.