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What China Is Saying About the Hong Kong Protests

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China Power

What China Is Saying About the Hong Kong Protests

In the upside-down world of Chinese state media, the extradition bill is actually supported by most Hong Kongers.

What China Is Saying About the Hong Kong Protests

Thousands of protesters gather outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, June 12, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Yu

On Sunday and again on Wednesday, Hong Kong saw mass protests against what is widely known as the extradition bill — proposed amendments to the Chinese special administration region’s (SAR’s) laws designed to allow the case-by-case extradition of wanted fugitives to countries with which Hong Kong has no extradition treaty. Mostly controversially, that would for the first time allow extraditions to mainland China. A wide swath of Hong Kongers, from legal scholars to grandparents and college students, fear that would allow authorities in Beijing to demand the arrest and extradition of activists based in Hong Kong on nebulous national security charges. The massive protests aimed at preventing the bill’s passage are this week’s major news story not only in Hong Kong media, but in newspapers around the world.

On mainland China, however, coverage is harder to find. Headlines on Thursday focused instead on President Xi Jinping’s trip to Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, censors were hard at work scrubbing any mention of the turmoil in Hong Kong from Chinese social media platforms. Many WeChat users reported they were unable to send pictures or videos of the protests; Sina Weibo was blocking search terms related to the protests. Telegram, a popular messaging app being used to help organize the protests, reported a “state actor-sized DDoS” attack using “IP addresses coming mostly from China.”

All that censorship left a vacuum of news, which the Chinese state-run media then had to fill. How Chinese media outlets covered the protests – to the extent that they did – was telling.

In perhaps the most egregious example, China Daily downplayed the number of protesters opposing the bill and focused almost exclusively on signs of support, claiming that 800,000 people had signed a petition in favor of the extradition law. The article was widely mocked by observers for its title (“800,000 say ‘yes’ to rendition bill”) and its lede (“Despite the blazing heat, representatives of various organizations in Hong Kong rose to the occasion on Sunday, staging various public activities across the city in support of the government’s plans to amend the SAR’s extradition laws”). Taken in isolation, that headline and first sentence strongly imply that the massive protests on Sunday were in favor of the law.

Likewise, China’s Foreign Ministry claimed that the protesters did not represent the “mainstream” in Hong Kong. Spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters Thursday that “any move that undermines Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability is opposed by the mainstream public opinion there.”

As usual, Geng also insisted that Hong Kong has seen no erosion of rights since the handover in 1997. “[S]ince the return of Hong Kong, policies including ‘one country, two systems,’ ‘Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong’ and a high degree of autonomy have been earnestly implemented,” he said. “Hong Kong people’s rights and freedoms have been fully guaranteed.”

In a previous press conference, Geng – like China Daily – held up the 800,000 figure as proof that Hong Kongers mostly support the extradition amendment. “[O]ver 800,000 Hong Kong citizens participated in activities supporting the amendment to safeguard Hong Kong’s security,” he said. “It fully demonstrates that the endorsement of the amendment by the SAR government is the mainstream opinion in Hong Kong.” Note that signing a petition has now become the more generic – and more impressive sounding – “participating in activities.”

The claim that most Hong Kongers support the bill was taken up in more detail by Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, in a June 12 article. The piece, also picked up by People’s Daily, was not subtle in its title: “Hong Kong’s mainstream public opinion supports the SAR in amending the ‘Fugitive Offenders Ordinance’ and preventing Hong Kong from becoming a ‘fugitive’s paradise.’”

The article begins by matter-of-factly making a dubious claim: That, since the Hong Kong government first proposed the amendments, the revised law has received mainstream public support. “The vast majority of [Hong Kong] city residents look forward to the SAR’s Legislative Council completing the amendments as scheduled, and closing a legal loophole,” Xinhua declares. As proof of that claim, Xinhua lists a number of trade organizations that have come out in the support of the bill, including the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers (both known for being pro-Beijing). Xinhua also cites a high number of pro-extradition supporters – this time “nearly 900,000” – that signed an online petition supporting the bill.

In reality, a survey done by the Public Opinion Program of the University of Hong Kong (HKUPOP) found that 60 percent of respondents “disagree/strongly disagree on extraditing HK people to mainland [China]” while only 17 percent agree or strongly agree. When asked if they would have confidence in “one country, two systems” should the extradition bill pass, just 29 percent said they would; 67 percent said they would not.

The Xinhua article also emphasized the Hong Kong government’s efforts to gather public opinion and revise the bill. Predictably, the article does not mention concerns – including from noted Hong Kong legal scholars – that even the revised bill could be abused by mainland Chinese authorities. Under the law as currently written, Beijing could apply pressure to Hong Kong’s chief executive to approve nearly all extradition requests. Legal experts say further amendments would be needed to fully address those worries. According to the HKUPOP survey, 73 percent of respondents are still expecting “a comprehensive public consultation on the law” – strongly implying that the previous efforts were not enough.

Even more telling – but unsurprising – is the fact that Xinhua makes no attempt to explain why, exactly, anyone might oppose the bill. Interestingly, there is no reference at all to the fact that the amendment would also allow Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China — unless you count repeated mentions that the central Chinese government backs the proposed bill.

The article does not mention the mass anti-extradition protests until near the end. First there are oblique references to “interference” and “crude meddling” from “foreign forces.” Finally, Xinhua notes that the second reading of the draft bill had to be postponed because of protesters near the Legislative Council chambers “occupying roads, provoking trouble, and violently attacking the police’s defensive line.”

China Daily also emphasized the violence on the part of protesters:

Masked protesters, equipped with umbrellas and goggles, built metal barricades to confront police officers. Some protesters were seen prying bricks from the sidewalk.

A police statement released on Wednesday evening said protesters repeatedly charged police lines and engaged in life threatening acts including setting fires and attacking officers using bricks and sharpened iron poles.

As an illustration, China Daily used a photograph of a bleeding police officer, with the caption: “A police officer attends to an injured colleague as hundreds of masked protesters attack police officers.” The article compared Wednesday’s protests to “the illegal ‘Occupy Central’ movement in 2014.”

Based on official statements and state-run media reports, Beijing believes – or at least is trying to make others believe – that the protesters are part of a radical, violent minority who are “undermining Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.” As is usually the case, the protesters are also linked, without evidence, to meddling from unnamed “foreign forces.” It’s a fairly standard response from China to any protest movements within the country, but particularly jarring when compared to media reports from within Hong Kong itself.