China Power | Politics | East Asia

China’s Changing PR Strategy for the Hong Kong Protests

From evacuating mainland students to sending soldiers into the street, the CCP’s chosen narratives have shifted.

By Chauncey Jung for
China’s Changing PR Strategy for the Hong Kong Protests

Pro-China supporters wave Chinese national flag at the Peak in Hong Kong, Sept. 29, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Yu

It has been more than five months since the eruption of the anti-extradition bill protest movement in Hong Kong, and there are no signs that the conflict between the Hong Kong government and the protesters is anywhere near being solved. In the past few days, violence in Hong Kong has significantly escalated in various places.

With police officers having been recorded pulling a pistol to shoot at a protester and one man later set on fire after confronting masked protesters, people are starting to have serious concerns about public safety and social order in Hong Kong. Violent incidents continue to spread, evolving from the isolated incidents of the past. Earlier this week, Hong Kong police officers began efforts to get into university campuses in Hong Kong, calling campuses a “weapons factory” and “refuge for criminals.”

Yet on the Chinese Twitter-style social media outlet Weibo, propaganda officials are presenting another version of the story. Instead of taking the traditional “cracking down on rioters” approach, stories on Weibo started to weaponize the mainland students studying in universities in Hong Kong. Chinese state media Global Times published a now-deleted story claiming that a group of pro-Beijing residents, led by Hong Kong legislator Junius Ho, were driving to the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) campus to save about 200 mainland students who were trapped on campus by black-shirt men, a term that refers to Hong Kong protesters.

Ho is a controversial figure amid the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Ho was accused of having ties with triad-style mobs who carried out the MTR attacks against civilians in July. These potential ties with triad members pushed Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge to strip away the honorary doctorate degree it had conferred to Ho in 2011. In early November, Ho was stabbed while canvassing on the street.

Following the escalating violence in CUHK, the university decided to cancel the remaining classes for the current semester. Increasing violence also led the Hong Kong Education Bureau to close all schools. On the other side of the border, Chinese media outlet Beijing News reported that youth hostels in Shenzhen are offering free residences for mainland Chinese students who were studying in Hong Kong. According to Beijing News, more than 100 students have been settled by the hostels. A student whose surname is Kong said that he is happy with the accommodation before denouncing the protesters: “People are wearing black shirts and covering their faces. They are putting up roadblocks and are destroying the campus. These created huge struggles in daily life.” Kong said that he hopes that classes can resume, or else he will be staying in Shenzhen to study.

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However, not all mainland Chinese students share Kong’s view on the “evacuation.” According to Hong Kong media I-Cable, the reports from Global Times were exaggerated. And many of the protesters are in fact helping mainland students evacuate from campus.

“They are exaggerating the facts, and they are very provocative. They want mainland readers to believe that protesters are criminals and Hong Kong does not deserve anything. This is disappointing. Regardless of your political stances, these basic principles in journalism should be followed at all times,” said one student who was not willing to reveal her identity.

“I personally do not know a lot of students leaving in fear of their personal safety,” said another student surnamed Guo. “When my peers were leaving CUHK campus, protesters were helping them, and asked them to leave their phone numbers to stay connected after arriving in Shenzhen.” Guo, now staying in Shenzhen, said most students are leaving Hong Kong because of the class suspensions, rather than safety concerns.

“All the mainland students that I know, and I can say it, are very angry at the Global Times report,” Guo continued. “Global Times is creating more division among local and mainland Chinese students. They are consuming our suffering and are putting mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong in a tougher position.”

Meanwhile, on the mainland, various alumni groups and community associations are advocating for safe evacuation helplines on WeChat. Organizations such as the Hong Kong Guizhou community group, Alumni Association of Zhixin High School from Guangzhou, and  SYSU Alumni Association in Shenzhen all issued statements on assisting mainland students from to return from Hong Kong. Chinese housing rental company Ziroom also issued a statement and committed to providing three days of free accommodation in Shenzhen for students who had been studying in Hong Kong.

Through evacuating mainland students from Hong Kong, Chinese propaganda officials are trying to demonstrate a movie-style successful rescue mission, reminiscent of Chinese propaganda movies such as Wolf Warrior II and Operation Red Sea. Through the fictitious rescue missions presented, the two movies delivered a messages to the Chinese audience: Through a strong state apparatus, Chinese individuals in overseas territories will always be safeguarded.

Aside from the evacuation plans, the role of the Chinese military or People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is another fissure between mainland Chinese narratives and Hong Kongers’. Over the past weekend, Chinese army soldiers were spotted on the streets of Hong Kong, conducting what they call “voluntary clean up” projects. While the PLA soldiers created significant controversy in Hong Kong, with a debate over whether they were potentially breaching the Basic Law, mainland voices are calling this the “happiest news in five months.”

More radical voices are not only supporting the PLA soldiers in their efforts to clean up the roads but also calling for them to take further actions: “Clear the roadblocks first, then take out to the mentally retarded ones.“ From calling the protesters rioters and “mentally retarded” individuals, anger is running high online.

Social media platforms within the Chinese Great Fire Wall have become the latest tools fueling division and fears among mainland Chinese and Hong Kong residents.

The Great Fire Wall screens out many new reports from media outlets around the world within the Chinese cyberspace borders. Only content denouncing the Hong Kong protests is allowed to survive and propagate. State media often shares posts that praise the CCP’s strong support for Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and the Hong Kong police.

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New media platform College Daily started to spread disinformation on Hong Kong protesters, claiming that the protesters were getting a $20 million reward for murdering a police officer. College Daily is one of the most notorious outlets for misleading information, with a majority of its audience being Chinese students studying in North America. With the absence of reporting from independent news outlets free of censorship pressures, Beijing and its affiliated outlets are making an effort to spin the truth to shore up support for the CCP regime.

It is clear that Beijing is looking forward to adopting a different approach to Hong Kong. From strictly censoring all content related to the protest movement to spinning stories to promote nationalist ideologies, the central government in Beijing has shifted its focus to preparing to justify harsher actions that might be taken in the near future.

The mission to rescue mainland students, the “voluntary” actions from Chinese soldiers, and the continuous efforts to conduct a disinformation campaign against Hong Kong all suggest that the Communist officials are willing to consider making more sacrifices to oppress the protesters — even if it comes with a higher cost.

Because the regime is using its resources in creating hatred, division, and fear in the mainland population, the general public from both sides are starting to develop stronger feelings against each other. As violent incidents become more and more prevalent in the city, it is evident that the Communist officials intend to leave little chance of reaching any agreements to meet the protesters’ demands.

Chauncey Jung is a China internet specialist who previously worked for various Chinese internet companies in Beijing.