Although a majority of Hong Kongers favor the pro-democracy movement, support for the establishment increases significantly with age. People who do not have a college education are also more likely to support the government’s tactics. Many of these people are especially susceptible to the Chinese propaganda machine, which went into overdrive last year when the Hong Kong protests began. The influence can be seen all over traditional media, including television and newspapers, and also on social media outlets such as Weibo, WeChat, Twitter and YouTube. As a result, many older Hong Kongers have begun to repeat and share state-media propaganda — often without fully realizing where the ideas come from.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been diving into these media channels to better understand these attitudes. I found that most share similar themes and messages.
First, whenever there is international criticism of China’s human rights violations, propaganda usually cites the Opium Wars, which took place in the 19th century, to reinforce the conviction that the Chinese civilization has been gravely wronged. The wars were indeed a great evil inflicted upon China, and the West (in this case, Britain and France) has never atoned for or acknowledged its imperialist past and present. But propaganda uses this to provide a motive for and absolution of all of modern China’s actions: Because the West committed great atrocities, China should be allowed to do so, too, in a twisted game of comparative evils that disregards human life.
Second, the propaganda suggests that China’s wealth and power are evidence of its greatness and that the Hong Kong protests’ efforts to undermine it are foolish and counterproductive. A significant amount of content is geared toward implying that criticism of China is rooted in jealousy or an attempt to curb its rise. Not only do you hear it overtly from Chinese government officials, but this message has also been displayed in bizarre videos featuring Lego characters mocking the United States’ coronavirus response and singalongs about China’s five-year plan toward growth and development.
Finally, baby boomers who benefited from rapid economic growth in Hong Kong — now mirrored by unfettered Chinese capitalism — attach a lot of pride to their Chinese identity. Many grew up scarred by the legacy of foreign invasion, patiently awaiting reunification with a prosperous mainland. They dismiss claims of genocide and scoff at democracy protests, attributing both to the conniving West. Drawing on these attitudes, state content often blames the younger generation’s public anger on foreign agitators seeking to disrupt cohesion.
The propaganda ranges from stories and clips in Hong Kong’s mainstream media to amateur videos and memes shared on social media. Though they vary in production quality, what they all have in common are attempts to cherry-pick history and present China through a romanticized lens of glory, themes that most appeal to older Hong Kongers.
Yet attempts to point this out often fall on deaf ears. Recently, an aunt of mine forwarded me an open letter to the president of the European Commission expressing “outrage and disgust” at her comments about the law and accusing her of racial bullying. To me, it was clear the letter was Chinese propaganda. The title was written in Simplified Chinese, which is used in mainland China; Hong Kongers write in Traditional Chinese. It went on to praise China’s glory, wealth and power, earned through honest “self-determination,” while neglecting numerous human rights violations, including massacres during the revolutionary period, the subjugation of Tibet and the current genocide against the Uighurs.
When I offered a polite rebuttal, my usually jovial aunt shut me down, saying: “I am not to argue with you as you are not a Chinese, period.”
This response, which is echoed across social media, bears all the hallmarks of the propaganda itself. Though I am an American citizen, I am proud of my Chinese ethnicity and culture and the story of my grandfather, who fled to Hong Kong for a better life. I also understand the difference between a people’s culture and a political regime — a distinction Chinese state media consistently ignores.
The protests and crackdown of the past year have motivated young Hong Kongers to plead for another generation to realize there is more at stake than financial gain — that Hong Kong can offer more. Justifying modern atrocities in response to past atrocities guarantees no permanence of wealth, power or stability; only that cycles of violence and division continue. But, mired in massive amounts of nationalist propaganda, many older Hong Kongers seem unable to fathom this.