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Under Different Umbrellas

How Hong Kong’s Protestors Divided Mainlanders’ Minds

“Dozens of mainlanders were taken away by the police because they openly supported Occupy Central and at least ten of them have been detained…They are in Jiangxi, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou, etc,” Hong Kong-based blogger and journalist Annie Zhang posted on her Facebook page on October 1, the 65th National Day of the People’s Republic.

The day before, Occupy Central supporters took to the streets to demand greater democracy and autonomy for their city. All of the world watched. All the world, that is, except mainland China, which was in the middle of its “most censored day of the year.” Reporter @朱学东 captured the disconnect in a microblog post from inside the Great Firewall: “the distance from Taiping Shan in Hong Kong to Beijing is only 1,976 km (1,227 miles), but who knows the distance between people’s hearts?”

In the days since, mainlanders have looked for ways to speak their minds online. Mainland students and alumni of Hong Kong’s universities added their support for the pro-democracy protestors by setting up a Facebook page. Sina Weibo, the massive (and heavily censored) microblogging platform, has quickly become a battleground for free speech about Hong Kong, its users deploying ever-more subtle tactics to keep their opinions from being deleted by mainland censors.

Some drew on history to signal their hope that China’s leaders would deal with the Hong Kong protesters with leniency. Microblogger @张修林微博 referenced the pro-democracy protests in Taiwan in 1979: “When the leaders of the movement were arrested, the army called for the death penalty, to make examples of the disobedient protesters. The then-chancellor of National Tsing Hua University, Shen Junshan, warned Kuomintang leader Chiang Ching-kuo that “once the blood touched the ground, it could never be taken back.” Chiang fell silent but heeded Shen’s advice and didn’t kill a single protestor.

Many mainlanders questioned the protests on the grounds that they could damage Hong Kong’s economy. Influential liberal and outspoken microblogger @李宇晖_Huey, a Ph.D. student in Chinese politics, dismissed the criticism with a reference to World War II: “That’s bullshit! The anti-Japanese War also had a devastating effect on Chinese economy!” he wrote.

Some called on song lyrics to express their feelings. After the United Nations recognized the People’s Republic of China and expelled Taiwan’s U.N. representative in the 1970s, Taiwanese singer Luo Ta-yu rose to the status of pop culture icon in the island nation for his song “The Orphan of Asia.” Hundreds of mainlander microblog users shared a recent post by @当律师的陈刚 featuring the song’s lyrics:

The orphan of Asia is weeping in the wind,
There is red mud on the yellow face
And white fear in black eyes
Western wind in the East is singing sadly
The orphan of Asia is weeping in the wind
No one wants to play fair with you
Everyone covets your beloved toys
Dear child, why are you weeping?
How many people are pursuing the unsolved question?
How many people are helplessly sighing at midnight?
How many people’s tears are wiped away in silence?
Dear mother, could you tell me why?

Posting photos online—as opposed to text—also has long been an effective tactic for prolonging the life of a message that would otherwise be quickly censored. On September 28, the mainland “net nannies” blocked Instagram, apparently to stop people from circulating photos of the protests. In response, popular microblogger @假装在纽约, posted what he called the “most astonishing photos on Instagram today.” They were not photos at all but screen captures of what Weibo looks like when a photo fails to load. These fail messages were reposted tens of thousands of times.

Microblogger @一毛不拔大师 posted a quote from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun: “A fundamental problem of the ‘Chinese Revolution’ has not yet been resolved: namely, the relationship between the Party and the law. Which should be the boss? China will have more disasters if this problem isn’t resolved. ” The post went viral.

People also used screen-grabs of long pieces of text to avoid detection. Mircoblogger @邮差-Tmca posted one such image, of a letter from Chen Jianmin, one of the three founders of Occupy Central, written to his mother. Chinese University of Hong Kong Professor Chow Po-chung used another image encouraging his students to participate in the protests, saying: “We do have choices.” Weibo users shared Chow’s post more than 1,000 times. But 2,000 users shared a post slamming Chow for encouraging his students to put themselves into harm’s way. “If I were a teacher, I would definitely tell my students: freedom and democracy are not as important as your family and your girlfriend. Never risk your life,” wrote microblogger @二逼瓦西里. “I would still say so even if my students thought I was timid or a member of the 50-Cent Party. Unfortunately, I’m not a college teacher; people like Chow Po-chung are.”

Some of Chow’s detractors argued that the Hong Kong students were being used by so-called pro-democracy organizers in Hong Kong and would be sacrificed in the end—an argument popular among supporters of Beijing’s Hong Kong policies. Microblogger @醉鱼 wrote: “All human rights in this world are fought for by the few and the brave who enjoy the fight but require sacrificial lambs to amplify their impact. Those mainlanders who took Hong Kong as the totem of freedom are just too stupid!”

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

A resident of Kowloon holds flags for the People's Republic of China while he screams at student democracy protesters to “get out,” in the Mongkok neighborhood, October 3, 2014 in Hong Kong.

As online debate escalated, more mainlanders showed mixed feelings rather than outright support for Occupy Central. One popular argument went that the Chinese Communist Party already had given a lot of freedom to Hong Kong, whose people are hard to please.

Some turned to a foreigner’s postfor support, sharing it 30,000 times. John Ross, former Policy Director for Economic and Business Policy for the Mayor of London and current Fellow with Renmin University in Beijing, wrote: “The Western press has been very hypocritical. In the 150 years of British governance of Hong Kong, Britain never let Hong Kong people appoint their own chief executive and the U.S. never protested against that. Nowadays, the system China designed for Hong Kong has been way more democratic than the British one, but the U.S. strongly protests that,” Ross wrote. (The legitimacy of Ross’ post was later called into question, with some readers doubting Ross was the author.)

Another widespread notion online was that the Hong Kong people’s dissatisfaction stemmed primarily from their economic circumstances rather than any feeling of political disenfranchisement. Condemning the protesters for their ignorance, microblogger @释不归 insisted that Hong Kong people’s self-governance is the very cause of the city’s declining economy. Who crying for democracy every day really knows about the economy?!”

Novelist Lu Tianming called what is happening now in Hong Kong a “war” provoked by the pro-democracy camp, whose members conspire to challenge Beijing’s authority by driving a wedge between the Party and mainland liberals.

The censors handled the debate differently on WeChat, the biggest mobile chat app on the mainland, taking down popular posts both for and against the protestors. Best-selling author Song Hongbing asked, “Whose Hong Kong Is It?” in a post that debunked the stance of the pro-democracy movement. It was viewed more than 100,000 times before WeChat’s parent company, Tencent, deleted it.

As the Hong Kong protests have occupied the front pages of newspapers around the world, the difference of opinions among mainlanders has grown. As the protestors and the Hong Kong government have reached a standoff, so too has public opinion online, with many WeChat users—some only half-joking—threatening to blacklist their oldest friends if they stand on the “wrong” side of history.