Yifu Dong is a junior fellow at Morningside College, the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
There is no end in sight to Hong Kong’s historic summer of protest. Since mass protests first broke out June 9, Hong Kong protesters organized rallies every weekend, with protest fatigue seemingly out of the question. The arrests Friday of Hong Kong activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow have only added further fuel to a fire that refuses to be put out.
On the surface, the deadlock is due to Beijing’s lack of options: a compromise with pro-democracy protesters, even by the Hong Kong government, threatens the very foundation of its authoritarian power, while a crackdown by force would only deliver a Pyrrhic victory along with international condemnation.
But on a deeper level, underlying the near impossibility of any resolution or consensus, is the unbridgeable chasm between the demands and values heard on the streets of Hong Kong and the spread and consolidation of China’s nationalism, amplified by its extensive and effective propaganda machine.
The initial reaction of Chinese state media to the Hong Kong protests was nearly silent. It was only after a group of Hong Kong protesters stormed the Legislative Council building and smeared the Chinese official emblem with black paint on July 1 that the propaganda machine began churning. The incident provided fodder for the common narratives of the propaganda framework: foreign conspiracy, threat to Chinese sovereignty and nationalism. Within days, the Chinese media showed pictures of foreign journalists and diplomats talking to protesters as “evidence” of foreign interference, edited footage of the protests excluding police brutality and including only violence by protesters at the front lines, and framed the protesters as a separatists.
But falsehood and distortion in Chinese propaganda are nothing new. What is most shocking is the unprecedented way in which ordinary mainland Chinese people around the world have organized themselves in defense of Beijing’s rhetoric.
One of the most noticeable incidents occurred at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. After hearing pro-Hong Kong protesters shout, “Hong Kong, stay strong,” many mainland Chinese students cursed at them. The vulgar insult was spontaneous, but it did not arise without a reason. In China, a curse is a form of verbal violence that functions as an attempt to assert political authority. Verbal violence also underlies the threat of physical force — just like Beijing ordered the paramilitary People’s Armed Police to gather in the city of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, and the state media repeatedly threatened to use force to end the crisis.
At a rally in London, a pro-Beijing protester displayed a slogan in English along with a picture of Bart Simpson with his pants down. To this protester, the “one country, two systems” model is apparently a relationship between mainland Chinese masters and subservient Hong Kongers. Another patriotic gesture by some pro-Beijing protesters in Toronto was to drive their luxury cars — Ferraris, McLarens, Porsches and Aston Martins — to the site of the local rally. When confronted by pro-Hong Kong protesters, they shouted qiongbi, or “poor losers!” These students exuded the arrogance of China’s nouveau riche, and their insult coincides with one of China’s narratives claiming that a lot of the grievances by Hong Kong’s young protesters, dubbed feiqing, or “wasted youth,” are economic rather than political. For those Chinese rich kids, money talks, and political values don’t matter.
Receiving a lot of positive coverage on Chinese media was the singing of the Chinese national anthem. To the pro-Beijing protesters, the national anthem is an authoritative symbol of sovereignty and unity. But the song was composed during China’s struggle against Japan during World War II, and its opening verses are “Arise, Ye who refuse to be slaves!” The song is a call for freedom and liberation, and seems to echo the demands of the Hong Kong protesters rather than those who are pro-Beijing.
Fans of several Chinese online forums organized “online expeditions,” in which hundreds of young Chinese netizens used VPNs to circumvent China’s Internet censorship to flood non-Chinese social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram with patriotic slogans and Chinese flag emoji. China Central Television and the Communist Youth League both praised the expeditions, although such displays of ultranationalist sentiments on foreign social media platforms were unlikely to win over hearts and minds in foreign countries — not to mention they broke China’s own stringent censorship laws.
After a reporter from China’s state-run tabloid Global Times was beaten by protesters in the Hong Kong airport on Aug. 13, the propaganda machine turned Hong Kong from one of the most censored topics on the Chinese Internet to the most viewed. The People’s Daily even published a slogan on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging service, that quoted the beaten reporter in Chinese, “I support the Hong Kong police,” followed by a sentence in English, “What a shame for Hong Kong.”
The post garnered more than 8 million shares in China and became well-known internationally when the actress Liu Yifei, who plays the lead role in Disney’s upcoming remake of “Mulan,” shared it on her Weibo account. Anyone with even a superficial understanding of liberal ideas would probably hesitate to show up at a pro-Beijing rally or share a nationalistic social media post, yet significant numbers of overseas Chinese living in societies with freedom, democracy and political rights that are nearly nonexistent in China have chosen to side with Beijing.
To the rest of the world, the pro-Beijing rhetoric, which refuses to acknowledge the real issues at stake in Hong Kong, may seem incoherent and contradictory, but it also shows the fruitfulness of decades of Chinese nationalist education and propaganda: the unquestioning submission to power, the internalized fear of authority and the display of aggression inherent in authoritarianism.