HONG KONG — When Bella, a mainland Chinese student, returned home after a week-long program in Hong Kong, it didn’t occur to her to take any special precautions. She hadn’t ventured near the protests that have rocked the city.

Approaching the mainland border point last month, the 21-year-old was pulled aside along with several others. Officers combed her phone, discovering Facebook and its Messenger app, both banned in China. She said her entry permit — a card used by mainland Chinese to travel to and from Hong Kong — was briefly confiscated while officers questioned her and accused her of deleting messages to hide unspecified evidence. 

“I was shocked that they would do that without reason,” said Bella, who gave only her first name for fear of reprisal, explaining that she had downloaded Facebook to follow fan pages of her musical idol, David Bowie. “I kept trying to explain, but the officers wouldn’t believe me.” 

As protests in Hong Kong have intensified into a rebellion against the Chinese state and its increasing grip over the former British colony, Beijing has grown anxious about any kind of spillover to the mainland.

Chinese officials are trying to solidify an ideological iron curtain between Hong Kong and mainland China — tracking people who go back and forth, ratcheting up propaganda, and intimidating protest sympathizers — to ring-fence the mainland from protesters’ pro-autonomy viewpoints.

This campaign is playing out at border crossings, in cyberspace and on college campuses as far afield as Australia and the United States. 

The Washington Post spoke to almost a dozen Chinese students and young professionals who have been stopped and searched at the border. Others on the mainland say they have been pressured by Chinese authorities to delete social media accounts and threatened with arrest for expressing views deemed supportive of protesters.

Ideological firewall

For President Xi Jinping, these efforts reflect the dilemma of how to ideologically insulate his country even as the Chinese are increasingly immersed in the world, including 520,000 students flowing yearly out of its borders. 

This conundrum is especially acute when it comes to Hong Kong, which Beijing has been trying to integrate socially and economically since the territory’s 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty, while keeping the financial hub’s relative freedoms from seeping into the mainland.

The Chinese Embassy in the United States reminded Chinese students in an open letter this week to be “representatives for this generation of Chinese youth” at American campuses and “demonstrate young Chinese peoples’ feelings and responsibilities through openness and confidence.”

When Chinese students in Hong Kong returned to the city after summer break, a text message sent to their phones from Chinese provincial authorities urged them to “unwaveringly uphold a position of loving the country and loving Hong Kong” and “by no means” attend any protests. 

Chinese authorities usually block social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter by using a censorship apparatus nicknamed the Great Firewall. Yet they allowed hundreds of nationalist youths to use special software last week to vault over the firewall and flood international social networks with pro-Beijing messages.

State media has at times stayed silent on major developments in Hong Kong, including the news Wednesday that Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam had withdrawn the contentious extradition bill that sparked the crisis.

At other times, Chinese authorities have splashed stories about the Chinese flag being hurled into the sea and promoted viral hashtags on Weibo, the country’s version of Twitter, with pro-Beijing messages such as: “The five-star red flag has 1.4 billion guardians. I’m one of them!” 

The information gap has sometimes generated confusion on Chinese social media. Some users were puzzled about why Hong Kong’s stock market suddenly shot up Wednesday afternoon, when breaking news about the extradition bill’s withdrawal was suppressed on the mainland. Other Chinese who had seen weeks of coverage about violent protests wondered why the government would cave to a radical fringe.

'Harmful trend'

Some Chinese citizens have tried to offer a different perspective, using virtual private network (VPN) software to access Facebook and Twitter and to read international news reports on the protests.

Byron Chen, a 34-year-old teacher at an international school, attended a July 14 rally organized by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, which advocates unfettered media access to the protests. He posted a picture on his WeChat page, stressing the legal and peaceful nature of the gathering.

One of his contacts saved the photo and distributed it with the teacher’s personal details. It was soon picked up by Chinese nationalists with huge followings on Weibo. Soon, he was flooded with online messages calling for his death or imprisonment. Plainclothes officers paid him a visit, he said, and have barred him from going to Hong Kong without prior approval. 

“I feel sympathy for the protesters, but above all, I’m concerned of the rising totalitarianism and centralization of state power I see in China, which is a really harmful trend,” he said in an interview. 

Chen said he has been forced to “think twice” before expressing his views, especially on Chinese social media apps. Getting outed online for liberal views, he added, is “nearly a death penalty” in China. 

Andreas Fulda, the author of a book on efforts at democratization in China and a senior fellow at the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute, said voices like Chen’s are “not being heard.” 

“But we shouldn’t think that these voices do not exist,” he added. 

Public figures in China who have urged their countrymen to have an open mind about the Hong Kong crisis also have been silenced. Last month, Chen Qiushi, a Beijing lawyer known for his online commentaries on social issues, told his more than 700,000 Weibo followers that he was skeptical about reports of widespread “rioting” and traveled to Hong Kong to get a look on the ground.

“We can’t simply divide people into good or bad. People are complicated. People engage in all kinds of thinking,” Chen told his audience in a live stream from Hong Kong’s streets as marchers walked past in August. “Not all of them are rioters.”

That crossed the line. Days later, Chen’s videos were removed. His family and colleagues, under pressure from authorities, urged him to quickly return to Beijing. He hasn’t been able to talk publicly since, said Xu Xiaodong, a friend of Chen’s who is also an outspoken social media personality.

Xu, a mixed martial arts fighter by trade, said his social media accounts also were shut last month after he, like Chen Qiushi, asked his followers how 2 million Hong Kongers could possibly all be labeled rioters. Days later, in late August, he was visited by authorities who asked whether he was funded by anti-Chinese foreign groups and pressured him to stop talking online.

“I told them I’ll stop talking, but I’ll continue to use VPN to get outside information for myself,” Xu said in his basement gym in east Beijing. “As a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, I have a right to know about a huge incident like Hong Kong. You can’t just hear one voice. When you hear only one voice, how do you know if it’s real or fake?”

'Blanket repression'

Snuffing out dissenting voices is a classic whack-a-mole strategy for a Beijing government concerned about the spread of destabilizing ideas across its southern border, said Jessica Chen Weiss, an expert on Chinese government and nationalism at Cornell University.

But Weiss noted an increasingly visible facet of the government’s strategy: doubling down on propaganda and patriotic education to “preempt” critical views of the Communist Party.

“They want to create a frame of thought, to urge people to rally behind the government,” she said. “The Xi government is resorting to indoctrination and blanket repression.”

Protests in Hong Kong show no signs of quieting down despite the government concession, and schools have become some of the epicenters. On Monday, the first day of the school year, Hong Kong high school students sang protest songs over the national anthem and boycotted class.

Meanwhile, in mainland China, millions of youths were shown a 90-minute back-to-school special on state television.

In online forums, Chinese parents lamented that their children were assigned homework about the program, which drilled into themes of patriotism, sacrifice and the sanctity of China’s flag.

The program conspicuously avoided any mention of Hong Kong, but it drove home its point with a final segment about Macao, a former Portuguese colony and semiautonomous territory that is often compared to Hong Kong.

A schoolgirl from Macao sang a ballad about her people’s unbreakable loyalty to China despite its colonial past:

“You know ‘Macao’ was not my real family.

I’ve been away from you, mother.

What they plundered was my flesh.

You still keep my soul.”

Shih reported from Beijing.