One of the most significant battlegrounds of the Hong Kong crisis isn’t in Hong Kong, but in China. That battleground is the minds of the mainland Chinese people. Even as the staging of military equipment and personnel outside of the city continues, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is diligently working to shape the people’s opinion regarding the protests.
Controlling the Flow of Information
Like all dictatorships, controlling the narrative is a big part of how the CCP stays in power. Because the internet and social media are both heavily censored by Beijing, any accurate reports on the nature of the protests will have minimal impact before they are quickly taken down. What’s more, those who post news or opinion that’s contrary to the official interpretation of the Hong Kong protests risk serious consequences, including arrest and imprisonment.
The Chinese public’s viewpoint of Hong Kong is therefore largely shaped by the flow of officially approved information. Consequently, the state-owned media are easily framing the Hong Kong protests as being directed by foreign powers.
In recent news reports in China’s state-run Global Times, for example, the CCP has determined that the Hong Kong events are essentially a “color revolution.” That is, they are considered anti-revolutionary and an “anti-Chinese front” in nature and intent. That may be true for some of the protesters, but not so for others.
But the report is essentially right about the protesters as a whole. In the aggregate, they do pose a threat to China, if not to the CCP’s claim on power. Any protest is, to some degree, a rebellion. That gets to the heart of why China’s leadership wants to have public opinion on their side. Any actions taken against the protesters must be seen to be justified by the Chinese public. The Party is hoping that if mass arrests and possible deaths occur in Hong Kong, they won’t trigger similar protests across the provinces.
A Disinformation Campaign
To that end, China’s official social media have repeatedly put out disinformation about the protests. The CCP is attributing widespread violence to the mainly peaceful protesters, not to the police or their Triad thug proxies, where it belongs. The rest of the world sees this reality, but for China, the important audience is the people over which they rule.
But of course, the protesters aren’t monolithic in their complaints, tactics or objectives. The protests were originally against the extradition bill allowing suspected criminals in Hong Kong to be taken to Beijing for trial or punishment, or both. Some protesters have gone further, asking for a review of police brutality, others seek a return to the “one country, two systems” arrangement, while still others demand full democracy for Hong Kong.
According to Fang Kecheng, a communications professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK):
“The [protest] movement is so complicated, unpredictable and unprecedented, with a very diverse group of participants, but what we see within the Great Firewall of China is actually simplified and distorted.”
Additionally, protesters’ actions have differed greatly. Sit-ins and calm marches have escalated to street barricades, striking aviation workers, engineers and in other key industries. Collectively, these have hit Hong Kong’s economy hard.
But those details are irrelevant to Beijing. The only thing that matters is the message that the Chinese people see and hear.
Of course, anti-West, anti-American propaganda has been a common theme in China’s state media for decades. China’s state-run propaganda blames the Hong Kong protests on “Western influences.”
The current trade war with the United States has surely, in some minds, proven the propaganda to be true. And now with the Hong Kong situation, the anti-West message has become even more present and strident. As China’s negative depiction of the protesters continues to gain traction, it makes it easy for the state media to put the blame elsewhere for the protests and whatever happens next.
CCP Running Out of Patience
But even if the CCP is successful in its campaign to blame the protests on the “black hand” of the United States and the CIA, it may have pushed Xi Jinping into a political corner. Since the state media is publicly blaming the United States for the protests, how long can the CCP delay quelling the “foreign-led” rebellion before they begin to lose face with the people? How will they explain their hesitation without looking weak?
Given that the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is coming up on October 1, how will Xi and the CCP look to the country if, in the midst of celebrating the glorious revolution, the Hong Kong protests are still going on?
Perceptions are very important to political leaders, especially in times of crisis. A reasonable observer might expect Xi and the CCP to act on Hong Kong sometime in early September, if not before.
James Gorrie is a writer based in Texas. He is the author of “The China Crisis.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.