China’s censorship of Hong Kong Protests
Mass protests by Hong Kong citizens against a controversial extradition bill have illustrated China’s increasingly sophisticated approach to censoring critical reporting and comment.
Beijing backs the proposed bill, which would allow people arrested in Hong Kong to be extradited to the mainland. Millions of Hong Kong residents took to the streets to oppose the bill.
On 9 June, Hong Kong locals used China’s popular Sina Weibo microblog and mobile messenger WeChat to share pictures of the protests.
Some of the pictures came from foreign media reports because Chinese state media did not report on the protests.
In mainland China, the name “Hong Kong” in Chinese quickly became a target for filtering.
This was not immediately apparent to users. On previous occasions, searches for censored words simply returned no results and the government disclaimer: “According to relevant laws and regulations, some results cannot be displayed”.
But this time, the filtering was less obvious. Searches returned results from verified government media, meaning that posts about “Hong Kong” not related to the protests were visible.
This was also the case with other search terms. “Hongkong” and “HK” in English were also censored and the term “1.03 million” – a reference to the protest turnout – only showed results from government-approved sources.
In previous years, bans on certain words have prompted web users to post screengrabs of foreign news articles to avoid using “sensitive” words.
But this time, WeChat users have reported that pictures of the protests were instantly removed from the platform.
Hong Kong paper South China Morning Post noted that the messenger’s censorship strategy was “more sophisticated than previously appreciated”, and appeared to recognise that specific pictures being replicated by multiple users were “sensitive”, removing them from pages much more rapidly than in previous years.
It appeared to be more intuitive in identifying pictures from users not based in Hong Kong, including screengrabs of news items, pictures from foreign agencies, or activists’ artwork.
The Post said that users could only get around the filtering by distorting images or “covering pictures with big logos”.
Intensification of censorship operations
The following week, as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam stood firmly by the bill, mainland China began censoring further searches related to the protests.
The word “march” became a censored term on Sina Weibo, and the names of areas where the protests took place were also filtered.
The search terms “Victoria Park” and “Causeway Bay” only showed up in approved reports.
Following Lam’s announcement on 15 June that the bill had been suspended, the protests began to abate, and Beijing gradually reined in some of the restrictions on social media.
Sina Weibo relaxed censorship of search results for “Hong Kong”, “Hong Kong government” and the names of districts where the protests took place. Searches on Sina Weibo returned results from individual users, as well as government and approved media accounts.
The phrase “Oppose sending to China”, which was banned outright when the protests begun, began returning results from users who strongly criticised the protests.
The view from Beijing
China routinely censors coverage of domestic protests.
Regardless of the scale of a demonstration, cyberspace police remove pictures of protests against Communist Party policies.
Small-scale protests by teachers and larger protests against industrial projects forcing people from their homes have been censored.
Recognising the influence of social media, the government tries to maintain the impression that its policies have widespread public backing by paying social media users, known as the “50 Cent Party” (because they are paid 50 cents per post) to post comments that support the government.
Therefore, even if the protests in Hong Kong had been much smaller, they would have been removed from Chinese social media.
Temporarily blocking certain words from search results allows the government time to manually remove posts that mention them.
Striking a careful balance
Although fresh protests are still taking place, and may still escalate, Beijing appears to be more relaxed about letting people discuss them and has found ways to deflect any blame away from Beijing.
It has refuted suggestions that Lam defended the bill under pressure from Beijing, and has portrayed clashes between the police and protestors on 12 June as instances of lone “rioting” and “hooliganism”.
It has singled these incidents out as acts by “violent” individuals and has blamed the US for intervening in what it sees as China’s “internal affairs”.
As with the 2014 “Occupy Central” protests in Hong Kong, examples of antagonism against the police work to the state’s advantage in bolstering the idea that foreign forces are trying to sabotage China’s sovereignty.
However, images of the protestors remain sensitive and are likely to stay banned, suggesting that China remains uncomfortable about letting social media users make up their own minds about the demonstrations.