As many thousands of Hong Kong residents kept up their occupation of the streets Wednesday night, leaders on both sides began strategizing with an eye toward the endgame.
“Cherish Positive Growth: Defend Hong Kong’s Prosperity and Stability,” People’s Daily, October 1, 2014, translated by Quartz.
The second and third days of mass protests to demand broader democracy in Hong Kong ended with none of the violence and confrontation seen on September 28. Thousands of protesters continued to gather on the streets of the city’s busiest shopping and financial districts, sitting around, chanting, and singing in a “festive mood” or braving sudden thunderstorms with makeshift tents and flimsy umbrellas. The police had largely retreated and riot gear was nowhere to be seen. The only notable police action was the presence of a few police negotiators who tried halfheartedly to persuade protesters to leave, to no avail.
But the war for Hong Kong hearts and minds, as well as the global audience, is only heating up after September 28, when peaceful, student-led pro-democracy protesters pushing for universal suffrage were greeted by tear gas and pepper spray deployed by Hong Kong police. Western readers have mostly received a straightforward narrative about a people united in their aspirations for true democracy, but local media coverage of the events reflects a more complex reality on the ground.
A scan of the territory’s top newspapers on September 30 shows worries about the movement’s short- to medium-term effects on local businesses, tourism, and the stock market. Only Apple Daily, the newspaper owned by Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon well known for his anti-communist stance, was unabashedly supportive of the protests with the triumphant headline “Democracy Occupies Hong Kong.” The paper made no mention of any disruptions to the city’s transportation, business life, or drops in the stock market index in its 20-page coverage of the protests.
Other papers, however, are somewhat less sanguine. While much of its coverage focused on the defiance of the protesters and the police retreat, the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s standard-bearing English newspaper, warned that volatility spiked in the market due to the political unrest and covered the early closure of shops in the affected areas. An editorial in Ming Pao, a relatively neutral Chinese-language newspaper, urged protesters and the government to find a way to compromise. A headline in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, a financial daily, worried that the occupation would “have no end.”
The pro-Beijing newspapers, however, painted a much darker view of the protests. The Sing Tao Daily, putting the word “danger” in the largest font, led with a story that implied that local triads had infiltrated the protesting crowd in Mongkok, a large shopping district. The front page of Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper with direct ties to the mainland Chinese government, warned that the movement is a “disaster for all of Hong Kong” and covered the story of an elderly woman who supposedly could not see a sickly relative in her last moments because of traffic disruptions caused by the movement. The September 30 editions of many of the pro-Beijing newspapers featured prominent advertisements placed by mainland-affiliated groups or business associations that condemned the movement as “illegal.”
Hong Kong’s crowded media landscape is famously rancorous, and many of the local newspapers exhibit clear editorial biases. In 2012, iSun Affairs, a now-defunct Hong Kong news magazine, produced an infographic that mapped Hong Kong’s main newspapers along an X-axis of “Pro-Beijing” versus “Pro-Democracy” and a Y-axis of “Pro-Masses” versus “Pro-Business.” By iSun Affairs’ count, seven out of 16 newspapers tallied were in the pro-Beijing and pro-business quadrant.
Hong Kong media, of course, is no longer dominated by the print press. Internet-based media outlets, like Passion Times, InMediaHK, and VJ Media, not to mention countless Facebook groups, cater to a younger generation more used to tapping on a smartphone than soiling their hands with ink. Rumors, news, and views are often shared among friends and family on WhatsApp, the most popular messaging app in Hong Kong. The social media-savvy protesters and student organizers have created viral memes, pleaded for volunteers, and donated supplies over Internet social networks.
In the universe of Facebook and WhatsApp, worries about the movement’s effect on the economy, housing prices, or the stock market seem almost quaint, while calls persist for “victory”—that is, the full satisfaction of protester demands for withdrawal of the electoral framework handed down by the Beijing government and resignation of the territory’s chief executive Leung Chun-ying, the head of the Hong Kong government who is perceived to be cozy with Beijing.
But as Leung reiterated on September 30, Beijing will not back down in the face of the protests. The movement does not seem to have a clear organization or leadership that could represent the protesters to negotiate with the government. While Leung has made clear that the Chinese military would not get involved, it is also unclear how the protesters might be persuaded to leave the streets without the victory they seek.
When thousands of Hong Kong protesters clashed with police on Sunday, September 28, many residents of the city immediately took to the photo-sharing platform Instagram. There, they uploaded images of police violence and demonstrations that shocked the world: smoky cascades of tear gas launched into swelling crowds, protesters wielding umbrellas to protect themselves from pepper spray, high school students struggling with riot police. These images never made it to mainland China, however, thanks to the speedy reaction of Beijing’s censors.
Or did they? The government’s decision to block Instagram on Sunday triggered a huge spike of interest in VPNs, or virtual private networks, on Chinese social media in the ensuing days. VPNs are a kind of software that allows users to scale the “Great Firewall”—the collective name given to the complex system of web censorship that keeps foreign social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter inaccessible for most Chinese netizens—meaning that scenes from the “Umbrella Revolution” surely made it onto the mainland after all.
On Weibo, China’s huge microblogging platform, one September 29 post offering instructions on how to download a VPN quickly went viral: It was retweeted more than 20,000 times in two hours. Censors later removed the post, but other VPN tutorials still remain accessible. One user who posted a tutorial commented that after using the recommended method, she was “so happy to be able to use Instagram again.” With or without tutorials, it seems that many Chinese netizens were able to find what they were looking for—according to mobile app analytics platform App Annie which tracks Apple’s iOS App Store, as of September 30, four of the top 50 most popular free apps in China were VPNs. On another social media platform, a discussion forum on Instagram swiftly attracted users seeking access to the photo-sharing site. VPN tutorials posted to the forum received hundreds of comments; at one point, on September 29, forum users were posting several new VPN tutorials every minute.
Social media users took note of this sudden spike in interest: On September 29, the day after Instagram was blocked, one user posted a screen shot of App Annie’s top Chinese search terms, noting that “VPNs already monopolize” the list. Not everyone expects former Instagram users to find ways around the block, though. At least one enterprising shop on Taobao, an e-commerce platform, immediately began offering Instagram photo transfer services, at the price of 15 cents per 10 photos, to allow those without Instagram access to at least recover their photos.
Chinese authorities are unlikely to welcome this new surge of enthusiasm for firewall-evading software, given the great lengths mainland authorities go to in order to restrict the Internet activities of Chinese citizens. VPNs, which enable access to websites blocked within China by rerouting to a server located outside the mainland, remain legal in China, as long are they’ve been registered with the government—companies maintain that they’re necessary for business operations. But foreign VPNs are illegal, and the government occasionally cracks down on their use. The low number of Chinese users on such banned sites as Facebook and Twitter suggests that most Chinese residents rarely use VPNs to access blocked social media. The networks can also drastically slow connection speeds, and often charge a monthly fee for use.
The Instagram block, seemingly intended to prevent mainland Chinese from rallying to Hong Kong’s side and from witnessing the exercise of freedoms banned at home, may backfire by frustrating some of China’s otherwise politically apathetic social media users. Though some users took to Weibo to blame the Hong Kong protesters for getting Instagram blocked, others have expressed deep frustration with the obviously political censorship, repeatedly comparing China’s situation to that of North Korea. One user wrote, “China is more and more like North Korea,” while another user commented, “Limiting social media feels like how in North Korea they can’t have cellphones.”
Another user seemed at first to think that blocking Instagram would serve to catalyze China’s young social media users, commenting, “I was going to say that the ban on Instagram will make the younger generation realize what kind of society we’re living in right now and how horrible that is.” But the user reconsidered: “With Instagram gone, there will be other apps to satisfy their need to socialize,” wrote the user. “Most people will then stop using Instagram, and the people who do will find another way.”
VPN Interest Surges After Instagram Blocked
Sometime late Sunday, Instagram was blocked in mainland China, presumably to stop images from the tear gas-filled streets of downtown Hong Kong from being shared on the popular social network.
Censors on Weibo, China’s massive Twitter-like microblogging platform, just had their biggest day of the year. And once again, it was events in the special administrative region of Hong Kong, not the Chinese mainland, that triggered it.
Student-led demonstrations in downtown Hong Kong began on September 26, protesting against what organizers believe is increased encroachment by Beijing in Hong Kong politics, despite a promise to maintain separate systems of governance. On September 28, police attempted to disperse protesters with tear gas, pepper spray, and batons, shocking the traditionally peaceful port city unused to displays of police violence. While protester ranks swelled as Hong Kong residents joined the demonstrations, China’s small army of online censors burst into action in China’s digital public square, quickly deleting related photos and comments posted to Weibo, a Chinese social platform with 46 million daily active users. Weibo censorship hit its highest point this year at 152 censored posts per 10,000, according to Weiboscope, an analytics project run by the University of Hong Kong. (“Hong Kong” and “police” were the day’s top censored terms.) To put that in perspective, the September 28 censorship rate was more than double that on June 4, the 25th anniversary of the crackdown on the Tiananmen student movement—an event so meticulously censored in both traditional and social media that many of China’s younger generation are largely ignorant of the event.
In recent months, Hong Kong has become increasingly unsettled over the question of universal suffrage, which Beijing has avowed it will allow only if candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive, the top government position there, are chosen by a committee stacked with pro-Beijing interests, rather than selected by open nomination. Activist groups such as Occupy Central, a pro-democracy civil disobedience movement, and Scholarism, a student-led group that has organized a Hong Kong-wide class boycott, have formed to push back against what they perceive as Beijing’s gradual encroachment upon Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Authorities in Beijing clearly fear that demands for democratic reform in Hong Kong may spread to the mainland, and censorship activity, ordered by the state, bears this out. Despite 2014’s many politically sensitive and potentially destabilizing events—including a March 1 terrorist attack at a busy train station, the July 29 announcement of an investigation into former security watchdog Zhou Yongkang, and the September 23 sentencing of prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti on charges of separatism—the three most censored days on Weibo were nevertheless all related to Hong Kong. Beijing’s official rejection on August 31 of open nomination of candidates in Hong Kong came in second, while the annual July 1 pro-democracy march in Hong Kong took third.
Mainland Censors Scrub News of Hong Kong Protests
Hong Kong has one of the highest rates of Western journalists per capita of any non-Western city in the world, including a number of the best foreign correspondents in the business.
A near-complete information blackout by Chinese censors has blocked most people in mainland China from seeing sriking photos, videos and news about Hong Kong’s ongoing democracy protests.
Mainland Chinese felt no effects from the protests roiling Hong Kong—until Beijing pulled the plug on another social network.
Here is what a court in Urumqi, the capital of China’s western Xinjiang region, concludes Ilham Tohti, a balding, thick-set, 44-year-old professor, did: “Using ‘Uighur Online’ as a platform, and taking advantage of his role as a university professor,” Ilham “spread separatist notions” and “bewitched and coerced” seven of his students to join into an eight-person, web-powered splittist clique with international reach. Here is what Tohti, by all appearances, actually did: he created and maintained a Chinese-language website, called Uighur Online, that provided a bridge between China’s Han majority and its Uighur minority, a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim group that mostly lives in Xinjiang and has an uneasy history of coexistence with the growing number of Han who live among them, marred by violent clashes. Like all Chinese-language websites, it could be read by anyone around the world with an Internet connection and Chinese-language proficiency. It acted as a kind of information hub with investigative reports, opinion pieces, and content aggregated from overseas. Elliot Sperling, a professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University-Bloomington who describes himself as a friend of Tohti’s, depicts the now-defunct site—shut down in June 2008, subsequently moved to U.S. servers, now unavailable once again—as “a path for the other side to think about what was going on.” Uighur Online, Sperling told me, “was providing the raw material for dialogue, unmediated on the Internet. He was trying to inform people” so they knew “what Uighurs feel.”
Tohti was convicted on September 23 of the (vaguely defined) crime of “separatism,” for which he was sentenced to life in prison and stripped of all his assets. That language obscures the grisly nature of the outcome—Tohti is likely to suffer decades of indignities both large and small and possible torture, while his wife, Guzelnur, currently deprived of the family savings, will effectively be a single mother of two and may have to rely on the kindness of friends and strangers. The verdict came from an intermediate court in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, although it’s certain that central authorities in Beijing made the final call. The case presented against Tohti, made available in a September 24 Chinese-language précis via state agency Xinhua, rested on a sorry mash-up of stray quotes, innuendo, and conclusory reasoning—what frankly looks more like first-draft opposition research for an upcoming Senate campaign than the foundation of a life-ruining legal verdict.
In the winter of 2009, I was spending my weekends in the northeast Chinese city of Tangshan, and eating most of my food from the far-western province of Xinjiang. Like many minorities, the Uighur, the native people of Xinjiang, have made their chief impact on mainstream culture...
Even with years to prepare, the immense resources of the Chinese police, judicial, and intelligence apparatuses behind them, and a vast trove of hundreds and perhaps thousands of Uighur Online articles from which to draw—what long-time Xinjiang researcher Nicholas Bequelin called a “godsend” for authorities looking for “anything critical of ethnic policies”—prosecutors were only able to dredge up the tiniest of slivers. One piece of evidence, such as it is, accuses Tohti of juicing a headline by calling a government workshop on anti-separatism a “brainwashing” exercise. Another complains Tohti posted a guest author’s survey without fact-checking, which the court reasons would require Tohti’s re-conducting the survey himself. Yet another accusation, leveled without supporting evidence, finds Tohti’s site guilty of “hype.”
In other words, Tohti was actually guilty of running what readers around the world would instantly recognize as a blog. To be more precise, it was what Internet scholars like Ethan Zuckerman call a “bridge blog,” one devoted, in the words of Zuckerman, to “building connections between people from different cultures via ... online work.” Much in this spirit, Tohti’s defense team, which included prominent rights lawyer Li Fangping, averred that his site’s purpose was “to eliminate inter-ethnic misunderstanding and spur communication.” Indiana University-Bloomington professor of Central Eurasian studies Gardner Bovingdon, a reader of the site before its shutdown, described it as “mild, moderate critique, and carefully analytical.” Foreign Policy analyzed cached versions of several of the articles cited in Tohti’s evidentiary record; none of them contains any call to separatist action. The closest any article arguably comes is a reflection on Uighur-Han riots in the southern city of Shaoguan in June 2013, penned by someone named Yarkant Irpan, which argues that “racial animus” lay behind the violence, and a survey finding that the vast majority of Uighurs didn’t like the Han Chinese in Xinjiang, and felt the Han there didn’t trust them back. Tohti has himself explicitly disavowed separatism on multiple occasions.
Tohti’s sentencing shows that the Chinese government is not in fact interested in communication between Uighurs and Han, says Bequelin. “A lot of it is just payback,” Bequelin told me. Tohti “has been a pain in the neck, especially of the Xinjiang authorities,” who clearly would rather not hear that their policies are failing to smooth relations between Uighurs and Han. “And now it’s payback time.”
It’s hard not to feel devastated by Tohti’s treatment, and not just because the sentencing of what Bovingdon calls “the best known Uighur intellectual of his generation” scorches the middle ground that Tohti had sought to occupy in Han-Uighur relations. It’s also because China’s government is showing itself to be fundamentally opposed to one of the major functions of the modern Internet, one enabled (and virtually necessitated) by its architecture: connecting people. As Sperling says, Tohti’s conviction “cuts off the path for the other side to think about what was going on.”
To be clear, linking people across borders and boundaries is not itself a crime in China. But that behavior has been effectively criminalized when it suits the government. Plotting to “internationalize the Uighur question” is listed among the findings against Tohti, and was among the oral arguments prosecutors offered during his two-day hearing. Sperling, who studies Tibet, says that “one of the things the Communist Party accuses Tibetan ‘separatists’ of is ‘internationalizing’ the issue.” But he asks, “So what? What that means is just getting attention from the international community, which is what you can do with the Internet.”
It’s also an impossibly slippery slope, since it’s quite difficult to publish something on the Internet that isn’t, in some fashion, international. While the Great Firewall (which the government has never acknowledged) largely blocks some foreign content like Facebook or Twitter from coming into China, it does nothing to stop anyone proficient in Chinese from reading mainland websites. If the ability of a foreign netizen to gain access to online content is the relevant yardstick, then the municipal government of the small industrial city of Fuling, where I spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, is also guilty of internationalizing recent complaints about parking at its northern railway station because it has published them on the world wide web.
The Tohti verdict signals that Chinese authorities want the Great Firewall, an invisible but immensely ugly thing, to work in both directions.
Sharon Hom, the executive director of New York-based NGO Human Rights in China, told me that Tohti’s treatment is “totally consistent with the tight new regulations over the Internet space,” which includes rules criminalizing rumors on the Twitter-like Weibo and mandating the pre-registration of any account sharing political opinions on social app WeChat.China has frequently invoked vague national security concerns for its increasingly tight hold on online speech. Just yesterday, at the UN General Assembly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave a speech calling for “new thinking” in counter-terrorism in which he explicitly mentioned counter-terrorism on the Internet.
The change in China’s Internet over the past several years is hard for close observers to miss. In December 2011, I co-founded a website, Tea Leaf Nation, dedicated to curating and translating online Chinese voices for an English-speaking audience. (It was acquired in September 2013 by FP and is now a channel on FP’s site.) The rise of platforms like Weibo and WeChat have presented an immense opportunity for everyday Chinese to be heard and understood in global discourse in a way unimaginable even 10 years ago. But the initial vision of the site—to pull from conversations Chinese writers thought were for internal consumption, and to rely on dozens of young, idealistic American and Chinese to make it happen—has been buffeted by wave after wave of crackdown within China’s cyberspace, making it hard to find valuable stories among the noise that now remains.
In widely cited September remarks at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Tianjin, Chinese Internet czar Lu Wei emphasized that China’s Internet was “multilateral, democratic, and transparent.” But he also said China desired an Internet in which “differences were shelved,” emphasizing that even if “the transmission of information has no boundaries, Internet regulation has borders.” Lu sketched his vision of an Internet that would become an “Alibaba treasure trove”—a reference to the massive online shopping outfit that just enjoyed the largest IPO on a U.S. stock exchange, ever—and not a “Pandora’s box.” Lu said that the aims of Chinese Internet law were the safeguarding of national interests first, and the vouchsafing of consumer interests second. He listed nothing else.
Some Chinese commenters seem to understand the gravity of the Tohti verdict. On mobile message app WeChat, a Chinese reporter named Wang Qian (no relation to Wang Yi) asked how “Hans can get better” in their relations with Uighurs “when this moderate intellectual dedicated to helping two ethnicities communicate, to eliminate conflicts, can be convicted for uttering a few sentences?” Wang concluded: “This isn’t the future we want, and it shouldn’t be the future of the next generation.” On the same platform, Huang Zhangjun, editor of a popular account that covers politics, wrote: “I really want to tell my future children, ‘It was a cruel age, one where I praised freedom, and prayed for the forgiveness and understanding of those who had fallen’.” But, Huang added, “I was unable to defeat my fear. I’ve never written an article introducing Ilham [Tohti] and defending him publicly.” That understates Huang’s courage. He and Wang must be aware that private WeChat discussions are sometimes monitored by government authorities. In fact, the evidence marshaled against Tohti includes a WeChat message Tohti sent to his friends.
And that’s precisely the problem with the Chinese government’s conception of the Internet. As the world boils and shakes with new forms of conflict and anger, enlightened websites like Global Voices, Fair Observer, and (once upon a time) Tohti’s own Uighur Online, connect disparate populations and give hope for a more unified, more civil, global discourse. But the Chinese government has shown it will be most content with an Internet that challenges nothing, not even gently. Czar Lu and his colleagues’ version of the Internet will give government media a megaphone (and a crowbar) into every phone, tablet, smartwatch, and desktop in China. That’s not to say it won’t also be a massive engine for wealth, and maybe even innovation. Price signals will transmit with perfect clarity: e-commerce will thrive as buyers and sellers connect in microseconds, as multiplayer games grow ever more massive and lucrative, as virtual karaoke halls allow lonely men to feel the simulacrum of a relationship, and as social media overflows with harmless celebrity gossip and promotions calculated to instill consumer lust in a rising Chinese middle class finally beginning to search for the meaning behind their prosperity. Above all that din, nobody will hear each other at all.