China’s Government Wants You to Think All Mainlanders View Hong Kong the Same Way. They Don’t.

Are mainland Chinese, especially tech-savvy millennials, overwhelmingly hostile, unsympathetic, or indifferent towards the protests that have engulfed Hong Kong over the past three months? Both the Chinese government and the international media seem to think so.

They flood the Internet with messages calling protesters in Hong Kong “useless youth.” They send obscene messages and death threats to supporters of the Hong Kong demonstrations. They gather in Australia telling Hong Kong protesters to “get the fuck out of” Hong Kong because all of China is theirs.

Video footage of rallies outside mainland China shows groups of young mainlanders hurling profanities at supporters of the Hong Kong protesters. In one clip, Hong Kong sympathizers in Australia chant, in English, “Hong Kong stay strong,” and mainland Chinese students shouting in Mandarin respond, “Fuck your mother.”

Nathan Law, a pro-democracy Hong Kong activist who in September will start graduate studies at Yale University, says he has received “numerous threats to my personal safety.” One message reads: “I will wait for you at school and you have no escape. Gun shooting will start—American style.”

But reports on episodes like this one, while important, are dominating media coverage to the point of drowning out the quieter, less aggressive voices of other Chinese mainlanders, whose views on Hong Kong the government in Beijing is less interested in amplifying.

Moreover, they risk giving anti-Hong Kong chauvinists a disproportionately large spotlight.



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On August 19, Twitter announced it had found a “spammy network of approximately 200,000 accounts” part of “a coordinated state-backed operation” that is “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong.” This suggests the possibility that the government might have created a large number of Mandarin-speaking social media accounts to publish comments that are hostile towards the Hong Kong protesters.

When peaceful protests against proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition law ramped up in June, China’s central government, which reassumed sovereignty over the territory in 1997, largely kept quiet.

But 10 weeks later, in early August, the central government escalated its attempts to control the story through propaganda, deploying video of outbreaks of violence in Hong Kong to make its case to mainland Internet users who generally have little access to international news reports.

The narrative it pushed through both the mainland’s state-owned and commercial media portrays the demonstrations as an “assault on social order” by “a few violent extremists . . . stoking opposition, brazenly attacking, smashing, and burning.” It dubbed the protesters “rioters” and “separatists,” who showed “signs of terrorism.” Millions of online comments from mainland Chinese expressing support for the government’s position followed. Outside China, crowds of mainlanders who appeared to be mostly college-age gathered at vigils in support of the Hong Kong protests in Australia, Canada, Germany, France, and the U.S. to disrupt and condemn them.

Meanwhile, Chinese state media wove together highly selective scenes of the Hong Kong protests with outright fabrications, and efficiently deleted almost all other news. Prominently featured were protesters at the Hong Kong airport tying up and beating Fu Guohao, who the nationalist newspaper Global Times says is one of its reporters. Effectively censored were all news reports of thugs in Yuen Long, a town in northwestern Hong Kong, attacking civilians and injuring dozens, and of Hong Kong police using excessive force against protesters. CCTV, the Chinese Party-state’s major broadcast network, put out an article about a woman whose eye was injured in the protest. The Hong Kong Free Press, a non-profit online news website, reported that the Hong Kong police “shot” the woman “with an apparent bean [bag] round,” leaving her right eyeball ruptured. CCTV reported that another protester—a “stupid teammate” (猪队友, zhu duiyou)—had hit her eye, and quoted someone who said the woman had been distributing payment to other protesters.

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Over the past two weeks, I have spent dozens of hours exploring reactions to the protests on Chinese social media. But instead of finding uniform antipathy for the Hong Kong protesters or support for the government’s reaction, I came across a range of opinion running the gamut from admiration to disdain, confusion, and even indifference.

In a chorus of international news reports, mainland Chinese, especially millennials, are often portrayed as a faceless group expressing hostility toward Hong Kong, or else mired in ignorance or indifference because of China’s censorship. The New York Times’ The Daily podcast called mainlanders “hostile” to the message of “democracy” Hong Kong protesters are trying to convey. These observations are often embedded in a larger narrative that places the root cause of such hostility or willful ignorance in the mainland’s Internet censorship and propaganda. In coverage of anti-protest mainlanders outside the Great Fire Wall, lack of sympathy for Hong Kong tends to be chalked up to a singular focus on economic prosperity and a worry that political change could threaten it. One article says many educated Chinese “believe the protesters are wasting their time.” The author writes that this “reflects a deeply rooted belief in the success of what many call the China Model: economic growth at the cost of individual rights.” Another reporter writes that mainlanders who “have studied and worked abroad” oppose the Hong Kong protests because they “no longer feel like they stand in [Hong Kong’s] shadow,” and that as the Chinese economy has developed so has “Chinese people’s growing self-esteem.”

These observations and arguments aren’t wholly inaccurate, but they also aren’t complete.

Some mainlanders have tried tirelessly to disseminate quality and informative articles from beyond the Great Fire Wall onto Chinese social media platforms. Netizens shared a series of articles written by the Hong Kong scholar Leung Kai Chi explaining Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China. The 36 articles, totaling 130,000 words, were made into e-books and shared by at least tens of thousands of people in the mainland. Leung wrote in the foreward to the articles, titled First Lesson on Hong Kong, that he started writing the series eight years ago for mainland Chinese college students studying there. One Weibo post sharing Leung’s series garnered almost 9,000 reposts before it was taken down a few days later. And people continue to ask for links to it on Weibo.

Other mainlanders posted about books on Hong Kong’s history and politics. One such post gained more than 2,000 reposts. Earlier last week, the post’s author, Xibai Xu, who studied politics at Oxford University and is now doing research in Beijing, where he grew up, said many other Weibo users have sent him private messages asking him to recommend more books. Many of the people who contacted him, he said, were high school and college students who “want to understand what this country is experiencing; the origins of its strengths and weaknesses. They don’t want to settle for only seeing what they’re allowed to see.”

Some, especially those who have lived in Hong Kong, penned defenses of their Hong Kong peers or attempted to dispel or complicate negative stereotypes. One Weibo user, who studied at a university in Hong Kong, wrote a collection of personal observations of Hong Kong people’s shift in attitude towards the mainland, and how young people in Hong Kong, despite being hardworking, face bleak economic prospects. In particular, he took aim at the oft-repeated claim that Hong Kong people refuse to learn Mandarin. In 2008, the author writes, he gave private Mandarin lessons to children in four Hong Kong families in a single afternoon. “If the kids misbehaved,” he wrote, the parents would straighten them out, saying, “‘How can you not study Mandarin?’ People say this generation of Hong Kongers is ‘useless youth’ and they don’t have the fighting spirit of the previous generation. But even when they do have a fighting spirit, it’s the real estate developers and landlords who make the money.” His essay garnered more than 350,000 likes and was reposted almost 70,000 times.

Another Weibo user in his 20s wrote a 3,000-word first-person narrative recounting his experiences visiting Hong Kong over the past decade, and his exchanges with a cousin who had relocated to Hong Kong 10 years earlier as a teenager. The author, who is from Guangzhou, writes that when he first visited Hong Kong in 2008, he felt welcomed as a mainlander, but that over the years he had become increasingly wary. Mainlanders, he writes, “worry they’re going to commit some sort of faux pas and that they’ll offend the Hong Kong people around them and be shunned, or that they’ll miss some cue or break a rule and people will ask them, ‘How can you not understand this?’” The post was liked more than 220,000 times. In response to it, many other Weibo users wrote that they had similar feelings. One said he felt alienated when he heard that mainland tourists were sometimes called “locusts.”

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But if mainlanders online demonstrate an openness to introspection about their feelings about Hong Kong’s people, they have also expressed displeasure about attempts to manipulate those feelings. The moment a group of highly active young mainlanders—dubbed fanquan nühai (饭圈女孩), or Fan Club Girls, for their obsessive adulation of pop stars—began to express similar zeal for protecting “the best brother in the world, China,” the Chinese media made it into a propaganda campaign. “When the Hong Kong separatists sell out their country . . . millions of young people in China see it and feel pain in their hearts,” intoned an editorial published by CCTV. Then, a Weibo user who also frequently posts about liking young pop stars, responded with an article scathingly critical of the Fan Club Girls’ nationalism. “What is this? Cyberspace Red Guards?” the user wrote. “Regardless how patriotic one is, one needs to try to think as an independent person. Not to be hijacked by sentiments, nor become frenzied.” The user has fewer than 2,000 followers, but the article was upped more than 65,000 times and reposted more than 16,500 times. It’s unclear who exactly these Fan Club Girls are, or whether they actually said the things CCTV reported. The origins of previous female-led youth Chinese nationalist groups have proved murky.

Two weeks ago, Chow Po-chung, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, published an essay on how Chinese state media have used misinformation to sway mainland public opinion. The essay, titled “To Mainland Friends: We Are Also Fighting for Freedom for You,” was censored on the mainland Internet. But people on Weibo have stubbornly continued to repost it every time it is deleted.

On August 17, a mainland lawyer named Chen Qiushi traveled to Hong Kong and made short videos for mainland viewers of what was taking place. Chen, who is in his mid-30s, has more than 700,000 followers on Weibo and is known for posting short videos voicing independent opinions. In his last video from Hong Kong, released on the evening of August 20, he told his viewers he was returning to the mainland in haste because “the pressure is tremendous. The police, the justice bureau, the bar association, and [my] law firm are all calling me begging me to stop treading on such sensitive ground.” Many have since left comments on Chen’s Weibo page voicing their support for him.

These are but a few examples of the expressions of sentiment diverging from the official line. There are many more: one asks whether people in the mainland remember how much money those in Hong Kong donated to relief efforts after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; another recounts discrimination directed at mainlanders on Cathy Pacific flights; another responds with sarcasm to state media reports extolling the battered Global Times journalist as a hero, noting how many mainland Chinese journalists have been arrested and beaten up by mainland police when reporting in their own country; still others are sharing a 1993 article by historian Elizabeth Perry (translated into Chinese) about the Red Guards’ use of vulgar insults during the Cultural Revolution.

Of course the censors don’t make it easy for this kind of commentary to circulate. Over the past two weeks, several Weibo users I follow who have been posting informative articles on Hong Kong disappeared. A 500-person WeChat group (the maximum size), mostly made up of mainland Chinese millennials who have studied overseas, was shut down after people started to discuss and argue about the Hong Kong protests. Censorship enhances the efficacy of the government’s propaganda, making it far more potent.



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But it is important to sort out specifics. Many mainlanders have consistently attempted to defy censorship. And many who hesitate to speak choose to “like” or “upvote” Weibo posts that express dissenting ideas. One Weibo user wrote in a post in early August, “upvoting a post becomes a silent language, a secret signal. Yes, I know what is happening.” Quite a few Weibo users, whose accounts had recently been deleted, have set up new accounts and quickly re-gathered their previous followers. Others relocated to Twitter and brought their followers with them. One Weibo user garnered more than 40,000 followers for posting thoughtful comments and essays on politics before his account was closed. He then moved to Twitter and quickly garnered more than 5,000 followers. Many wrote to the new Twitter account to say they followed it from Weibo, and they wanted to thank the user for writing thoughtful comments.

I asked Xu, the Weibo user in his mid-30s who posted books on Hong Kong, what he thought of the demonstrations there. Xu replied that,

There are major problems with Hong Kong’s economy, but the root of what’s taking place is still political. It has erupted out of years of accumulated frustration and rancor over problems of political legitimacy, political representation, political trust, and much more. I can understand the protesters’ feelings of frustration in the face of the Hong Kong government’s unresponsiveness and aggressive use of force. I also know that any large-scale social movement is bound to draw in all sorts of characters and that occasional outbreaks of violence are normal. Nevertheless, I think there are problems with the movement’s framing of issues and with its strategy. Normal protests, even those that take place without police approval—I think these are all understandable. But what does it mean to cripple the airport? You can’t sacrifice other people’s freedom and force them to pay for your actions because the goal is “incomparably noble.” That’s a complete moral travesty. The ends never justify the means. ”

Applying a broad brush to people in or from mainland China, painting them as mindless bots parroting the Chinese state’s propaganda is dangerously misleading. It’s easy to find hyper-nationalistic, nativist, and hateful comments from mainland Chinese on social media, especially given the state’s active role in promoting them.

Determining public opinion about politics is always difficult in an authoritarian state. It’s even more difficult to gauge the scale of dissent when it is so actively silenced. It’s true the divergent voices on Hong Kong see far fewer likes or reposts than the hateful or hyper-nationalist ones. But who is to say the latter type of posts or comments don’t emanate from bots or state-coordinated efforts? Why should they overshadow the former?

The Chinese government foments nationalism by hijacking Chinese people’s emotions and attachment to their homeland, and insisting they be conflated with support for the Communist Party. So it’s no surprise China’s government should marginalize and erase dissenting voices in the service of its single smooth, black and white narrative on Hong Kong. But if so many mainland people, living under censorship and intense political pressure, can view that story with skepticism, then surely independent media organizations and reporters can do so too. They ought to be more careful to avoid generalizations about mainland opinion or lumping its people into a single undifferentiated nationalist mass. If they aren’t, then their publications too may become mere vehicles for a story about Hong Kong written entirely in Beijing.