It was hardly a good National Holiday to begin with: Beijing was soaked in rain, a gray sky looming low on a wet capital. It was made even worse for Chinese policymakers by Hong Kong’s present to the motherland: the biggest protest to challenge the central government since the days of Tiananmen.
Not many people would know about it though: little information has been allowed to filter through the ‘great firewall,’ as China’s online censorship system is called. As usual, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were down, but for the occasion Instagram was blocked, too. Photographs of protesters holding banners and being tear-gassed in downtown Hong Kong would have ruined the patriotic mood – or they might have stirred sympathy, which is likely why the photo-sharing platform was shut down.
Chinese social media have faced a sharp hike in controls. According to Weiboscope, a project which monitors censorship and is supported by the University of Hong Kong, the number of Weibo posts which were deleted increased five-fold over last weekend. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) quoted Dr. Fu King-wa, the professor responsible for the project, as saying that “you can see that the keywords [in censored posts] such as ‘police’, ‘justice’, they are all linked to protest in Hong Kong.”
A timeline provided by the South China Morning Post shows that last Saturday the number of inaccessible posts tripled to 98 and the following day about 152 posts per 10,000 messages were deleted, or “about five times the preceding week’s average.” The paper also reported that the access to posts with the hashtag ‘Hong Kong’ was blocked on Monday and “later removed from its [Weibo’s] rankings.”
Meanwhile, official papers have kept an eerie silence. By simply looking at the front pages, you would hardly guess what is going on. As of October 2, the People’s Daily’s Chinese version – which on the previous day had published an editorial about the topic – did not report the trouble brewing in the former colony. The city was only mentioned in one article referring to the customary flag raising ceremony on October 1: “the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region held a flag raising ceremony at the Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai this morning,” wrote the Party’s mouthpiece, adding that “many Hong Kong citizens made special trips to go there to see the flag-raising, (they) believe that Hong Kong’s tomorrow will be better.”
The English version of the paper, too, steered clear of sensitive subjects. It touched on Hong Kong, but just to report the city’s current – and embattled – Chief, C Y Leung, as saying that “Hong Kong must capitalize on the combined advantages of ‘One Country’ and ‘Two Systems’” formula.
China Daily did report that protests were taking place, but just to quote Mr. Leung, who urged protesters to “to end the protest immediately.”
On the Global Times’ English website, top news included “Suicide blast hits Afghan army bus in Kabul, killing 4,” “Deadly blasts rock Syria amid military showdown,” “Beijing receives record number of tourists on National Day” and “UN chief slams deadly bombing attacks in Syria,” among others. No trace of Hong Kong. Only the editorial page showed two articles criticizing the Occupy Central movement because ‘it adds merely noise’ and because the ‘street movement ruins Hong Kong image.’
The tightening of the news flow into and inside the motherland certainly underscores the authorities’ desire to keep the protests in Hong Kong firmly contained there. Reports of the crisis could also imply a loss of face for the government: the answer one often gets when talking about former leader Deng Xiaoping is that one of the great things he did – along with making China richer and improving education – is that he took Hong Kong and Macau back from the British and the Portuguese, respectively. But what would people make of the images coming out of Hong Kong now, as the people protest against the same institution that has welcomed them back to the mainland?