BEIJING — Are they angry youths, or are they useless youths? That’s the debate on China’s answer to Twitter this week, as young Chinese pile scorn on their peers in Hong Kong, who have been protesting for 11 straight weeks to avoid the kinds of restrictions that control mainlanders.
“Did the motherland give you too much freedom?” one woman, using the name “Fairy Ban Ban,” wrote mockingly in a popular post on Weibo. “I hope these angry youths in Hong Kong realize that your father is always your father.”
Another dissed the protesters for “covering their shameless faces, beating the drums for American fathers, and truly disgracing their ancestors.”
The censors here usually go to great lengths to scrub China’s parallel media universe of any reference to protests or calls for greater freedoms, for fear of giving young Chinese ideas.
But this week, since the protests took a darker turn, the unelected leaders of the unelected Communist Party are allowing news about Hong Kong all over state media. They are, however, trying to make sure that mainlanders get only one version of events.
The newspapers are full of reports about the “black hands” of the “shadowy foreign forces” promoting violence in Hong Kong and the “color revolution aimed at ruining Hong Kong’s future.” There have been plenty of pictures of the state-affiliated reporter who was detained and beaten by protesters at Hong Kong’s airport, but none of the protesters who have been attacked by mainland gang members bearing sharpened sticks.
The television news bulletins contain commentaries about the need to “severely punish terrorist atrocities” and “resolutely restore order in Hong Kong.” The main state television news channel has been broadcasting statements supporting an end to the protests from “people who love the country and Hong Kong.”
The Chinese authorities escalated their rhetoric this weekend when they used the T-word — terrorism — to describe the protests, a word that was not used even during the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, when young people were also calling for greater freedoms.
But there has been no mention of core reasons for the protests: to protect the freedom of speech that Hongkongers have enjoyed and to promote the right to choose their own leaders. Under the “one country, two systems” principle that was supposed to leave the former British colony with a level of autonomy following its return to China in 1997, residents vote for their leader but only from a selection approved by Beijing.
The protests have widened to include economic concerns, with young people in Hong Kong complaining about a lack of job opportunities and ridiculously unaffordable housing costs. These issues — which would resonate with young mainlanders struggling to get ahead in a sharply cooling economy — are certainly not reported by state news outlets.
Beijing has embarked on a “two-pronged” media strategy when it comes to the demonstrations, said David Bandurski, an analyst at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project.
One prong involves state media reports framing the protests as violent, destructive and against the wishes of Hong Kong’s people, he said. The other involves “officially sanctioned fake news.”
“In the latter case, posts are proliferating on social media that are openly scornful of Hong Kong people as spoiled, suffering under a colonial mind-set, influenced by foreign forces, violent and unreasonable,” Bandurski said.
“Anyone watching Hong Kong from inside China would be hard-pressed to think anything different, given the barrage of propaganda and fake news,” he said.
Indeed, posts on Weibo, China’s heavily regulated answer to Twitter, with the hashtag “Safeguard Hong Kong” had been read more 7.3 billion times by Thursday afternoon. Chinese pop stars and rappers were reposting a sign saying “What a shame for Hong Kong” that was first promoted by the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China.
And it’s not as if Chinese consumers have much choice when it comes to news.
Traditional media is almost entirely controlled by the ruling Communist Party, and social media is almost entirely domestic. There’s a Chinese version of Facebook and Twitter, a Chinese YouTube and a Chinese Google. And TikTok? Well, TikTok is Chinese.
On Douyin, the local name for TikTok, one post from the People's Daily proved particularly popular with young people.
“Sir, 1.4 billion compatriots support you! Today is the ‘National Police-Supporting Day.’ Like the post to show your support and pass on the message!” it read. It has more than 13.5 million likes and 100,000 comments.
One of the most-liked comments, with 120,000 thumbs-ups, says: “I'm filled with anger when I see protesters holding American and British flags. I want to beat them up!”
On another social network, “Goose Group,” people commented on a report that Hong Kong gets 90 percent of its vegetables from the mainland. A constant refrain was that the mainland was being too kind to Hong Kong.
Many outside news outlets, including The Washington Post, are blocked inside China.
“What many people on the mainland feel is what the government wants them to feel,” said Clayton Dube, head the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California. “That these people who are protesting are young, immature, ill-educated, poorly informed and not appreciative of all that China has accomplished and all that China is today.”
This approach could help the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, weather the protests.
“Some aspects of the protests, like the complaints about gross inequality, could resonate on the mainland if people were aware of them,” Dube said. “They’re not. The government has worked very hard to limit the flow of that part of the story.”
By playing up the violence or acts of vandalism, the Communist Party is able to present itself as “the bulwark against disorder,” he said.
Outside media is accessible to those with virtual private networks, which mask their device’s location and allow them to get around China’s “Great Firewall.” But with the authorities constantly blocking VPNs, many young people say they no longer bother with trying to get information from the outside world.
On the streets of Sanlitun, an upscale part of Beijing lined with fancy bars and expensive stores — which could be said to be the most Hong Kong part of the capital — the protesters’ peers didn’t have much to say.
“I know little about the happenings,” said Clara Lu, a 24-year-old graduate who is about to head to Europe for further study. “I can’t remember why they started the protests. They were against some policies, then repressed by the police, and they fought back again?” she asked, as if seeking confirmation.
“There could be a more reasonable way to express their demands,” she concluded.
A survey conducted by researchers from four Hong Kong universities and published this week found that half the protesters were in their 20s and the same proportion described themselves as middle-class. Almost 80 percent said they had a college education.
A 30-year-old lawyer and Communist Party member smoking outside a store said he read both domestic and outside media and has concluded that the Hong Kong protesters were not being reasonable.
“People should have the freedom to express themselves and to have different voices,” he said, declining to give his name when talking about such a sensitive issue, “but not in our country because different voices will shake the foundation of our party.”
Asked if he understood the protesters’ complaints — including a lack of representation and job opportunities, and unaffordable housing — the lawyer said the protesters themselves did not know what they wanted.
“They’ve had their values distorted, and they are tools being used by the forces behind them,” he said.
But others noted that they were being deliberately kept in the dark. “I have no idea until now why they are unsatisfied,” one netizen wrote online this week. “Our government never tells anything.”
Wang Yuan, Liu Yang and Lyric Li contributed to this report.