Chinese state-run media and overseas organizations that are part of Beijing’s United Front have launched a propaganda campaign to denounce the ongoing Hong Kong protests and to vilify pro-democracy demonstrators in an effort to gain public support from the people inside and outside of China.
News, photos, and videos about the ongoing Hong Kong protests were initially censored in China. When millions of Hongkongers first paraded on the streets against the extradition bill in early June, mainland Chinese knew nothing about the situation. Police even checked people’s smartphones at subway stations and on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai to make sure their devices didn’t contain Hong Kong related photos and videos.
Since Aug. 10, Chinese netizens found out that internet censors allowed mainlanders to discuss the Hong Kong protests online, but the topics were all in support of Hong Kong police who frequently used tear gas, rubber bullets, sponge grenades, and other crowd control equipment to disperse protesters.
At the same time, Chinese state-run media spread false information about Hong Kong.
“Shame on you!” Hai Xia, a news anchor at the state-run China Central Television (CCTV), said to Hong Kong protesters on Xinwen Lianbo, a daily news program that airs simultaneously on all local TV stations in mainland China, on Aug. 14.
Thousands of mainland Chinese posted comments on the program’s Twitter-like Weibo account, most of which praised Hai’s remarks and criticized Hongkongers.
Crystal Liu Yifei, the Chinese actress who is playing Mulan in Disney’s new live-action adaptation, posted a comment on Weibo that same day, saying that she supported Hong Kong police and wrote “What a shame for Hong Kong.”
Liu’s post garnered thousands of likes from mainland Chinese, but angered people outside of China, who launched an online campaign calling for a boycott of the upcoming movie.
In fact, Liu isn’t the only Chinese actress who vocalized support for the Hong Kong police. Chinese web commentators checked all Chinese actors’ social media accounts and criticized those who hadn’t publicly supported the police.
Voice of America (VOA) also interviewed a man named Bai Lin who lives in China’s Tianjin City. On Aug. 14, Bai shared three separate conversations he had with his father, manager, and a taxi driver. All three men believe that Hong Kong protesters are what Chinese state-run media has dubbed “rioters.”
“Our government needs to send troops to Hong Kong to clean the thugs,” Bai’s father said.
On the web portal Sina, more than 27,000 people commented on an Aug. 14 article by the state-run tabloid Global Times supporting Hong Kong police. Most of the netizens said they wished for Beijing to send troops to quell the protests.
The mass protests began almost three months ago in opposition to a now-suspended extradition bill that would allow people to be transferred to the mainland for trial in courts controlled by the Chinese regime.
Since then, Hongkongers have been demanding the bill’s full withdrawal.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong police have used force to remove protesters from the streets since June 12, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently condemning the police for violating international norms.
Hong Kong media reported that a female protester was shot in the right eye with a police’s bean bag round, which penetrated through her goggles. The incident occurred during a standoff between Hong Kong demonstrators and police on the evening of Aug. 11.
CCTV posted about the incident on its official Weibo account on Aug. 12, insinuating that the woman was injured by a fellow demonstrator.
China’s state-run media has never mentioned that Hong Kong police fired tear gas inside a subway station, beat protesters, and arrested dozens of unarmed protesters that evening.
On Aug. 15, state-run media Xinhua posted a cartoon on Facebook, likening Hong Kong protesters to cockroaches, which angered netizens.
“Now all the world knows how disgusting you [Chinese Communist Party] are!” a netizen commented under the post. The comment was soon deleted along with others that supported the protesters or criticized the Chinese regime.
In another instance, the CCTV compared the protesters to Nazis in a Twitter post on Aug. 17.
“Over the past decade the [Chinese] central government has spent an estimated $6.6 billion expanding its international media presence as part of its efforts to make its voice heard abroad,” the South China Morning Post posted on Aug. 16.
The report quoted Clayton Dube, director of the University of Southern California U.S.-China Institute: “The Chinese government has invested so much, and it’s just for these kinds of moments,” referring to the ongoing Hong Kong protests.
China’s United Front department, which is in charge of spreading Beijing’s agenda domestic and abroad, also promotes the state propaganda through its various front groups around the world.
For example, the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China Tasmania Branch, shared an online post that read “four heavy punches, the end day of Hong Kong independence is coming,” insinuating that protesters are calling for the territory’s formal independence. Locals have never said they wish to achieve independence.
The post was shared by many users on WeChat, a Facebook-like Chinese social media platform, on Aug. 11.
The post said that Hong Kong protesters are “thugs who betray their country, sell their dignity and soul. They should be killed.”
Politicians of Chinese background, such as Chen Guozhi, a former politician of the Liberal Party in Canada, and other pro-Beijing figures in different countries, spoke publicly in support of Beijing’s position regarding Hong Kong.
Foreigners were also mobilized. Michael Borschmann, former director general of European and international matters for the German Hessen state government, published an Aug. 13 article on China Minutes, a European newspaper that is operated by the Chinese government. Borchmann said that the protesters are “rioters,” repeating the rhetoric of China’s state-run media.
China Daily, an English-language state-run newspaper geared toward international audiences, adopted a similar tactic by interviewing an Australian expat who has lived in Hong Kong for 28 years.
He parroted the Chinese regime’s refrain that the protests were incited by foreign countries. “China is strong now, so that is why Hong Kong is being used by overseas elements to poison Hong Kong in order to try to hurt China… Hong Kong was built up by Chinese people, not the British. And the young people here are throwing all of that away. I’m disgusted by it,” Erich Beck said in an Aug. 17 China Daily video interview that was posted on Twitter.
Most recently, Twitter and Facebook revealed that disinformation campaigns originating from the Chinese regime employed tens of thousands of spam accounts to spread misleading information about the Hong Kong protests. Because both platforms are banned inside China, the campaign is mostly directed at international audiences.