The huge protests in Hong Kong were planned long in advance, but their scale seems to have taken many by surprise: The city was in chaos over the weekend after thousands took to the streets, and there are many signs that the Occupy Central demonstrations may not be over yet.
For Chinese state media, the protests present a conundrum: how to cover a story that is now too large to ignore without challenging the official narrative. Their response, at times, seems awkward.
According to the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, more than 20 mainland newspapers have run a story from China's state news agency, Xinhua, in response to the protests. That report is based largely on an official statement by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council and contains little explanation for the protests, which it calls " unlawful occupation actions." A later report from Xinhua, featured on the English-language China Daily Web site, describes the disruption caused to Hong Kong daily life in neutral terms.
In op-eds, however, there's a more noticeable negative sentiment. State newspaper Global Times, known for taking a stronger, more controversial stance on issues, published one editorial that says people should feel "sorrow over the chaos" caused by "radical opposition forces."
That editorial has since been deleted from the paper's Chinese-language Web site but still appears online in English, perhaps an indication of its target audience. "U.S. media is linking the Occupy Central movement with the Tiananmen Incident in 1989," the editorial says. "By hyping such a groundless comparison, they attempt to mislead and stir up Hong Kong society."
In another, now-deleted op-ed published by Global Times, Wang Qiang, a professor at the People’s Armed Police college, suggested that if Hong Kong's police could not control the protesters, mainland China's paramilitary group should be sent in. Events that "damage the fundamental interests of a sovereign country cannot be tolerated indefinitely," the article says, according to an archived version.
Meanwhile, the People's Daily published an op-ed Monday that expressly linked the protesters to "foreign anti-China forces" and alleged intervention by the United States and Britain. "No one is more concerned about the future and destiny of the Chinese people in Hong Kong" than the Chinese government, the op-ed states. It also accuses "some of the Western media" of creating "a big fuss," noting rolling live coverage of the protests.
That rolling coverage is certainly in marked contrast to how the story is being covered by Chinese broadcasters. The protests have been featured little, if at all, on China's largest state broadcaster, CCTV, and George Chen, a columnist at the independent South China Morning Post, points out that Shanghai's state television channel appears to be portraying the large crowds in Hong Kong as pro-state nationalists:
Shanghai's state media Dragon TV: Tens of thousands Hong Kong people gather together to celebrate China National Day! pic.twitter.com/kc4XytYLfx
— George Chen (@george_chen) September 29, 2014
For mainland users looking online, the information isn't much better, unfortunately. China's large Web portals seem to be giving the protests little attention.
Social media is being restricted, too: The China Media Project's Weiboscope tool shows a remarkable spike in the number of posts censored on Chinese social networks, and, as my colleague William Wan notes, one of the few available Western social networks, Instagram, appeared to be blocked Monday.