In an unprecedented move, Twitter and Facebook have banned hundreds of thousands of accounts linked to the Chinese government‘s efforts to undermine the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
As protests on the streets of Hong Kong continue for an 11th week, with 1.7 million people hitting the streets in the latest march, participants have told The New Daily they will not give up the fight on the ground.
But they realise they are also facing a new – less tangible – enemy: The propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Protesters are now demanding Beijing takes back its descriptions of them as violent “terrorists”, while social media giants have gone some way to shut down “manipulative” messages spreading false information worldwide.
Twitter disclosed “significant state-backed information operations” had been playing out on the site and that it had removed 936 accounts and suspended a further 200,000, all of which originated from within the People’s Republic of China.
“Covert, manipulative behaviours have no place on our service,” Twitter said on Tuesday.
Amid growing fears for the economy and for tourism after sit-ins caused mass delays at Hong Kong airport last week, Beijing’s propaganda arm begun flexing its muscle to sway public opinion in the west.
In the past few days, the CCP has labelled the protests as “terrorism”, “rioters” and likened them to cockroaches and Nazis.
Hong Kong teacher Ka Lun Cheung, 23, said this is not the case.
“We are not rioters,” he told The New Daily.
“Calling us terrorists is ridiculous. We never do damage to innocent people’s lives.
“We’re just defending the human rights and freedom we used to enjoy in Hong Kong.”
Inside and outside mainland China, posts in social media feeds have created the sense that young people in Hong Kong have been violent, determined at all costs to create chaos.
This week, the state broadcaster CCTV tweeted a poem reminiscent of a piece of famous anti-Nazi literature.
In another post, Communist mouthpiece China Daily even enlisted famous Chinese rappers to tell people to stop rallying.
This PR war is a stark difference from the CCP’s silence for the first two months of demonstrations, said teaching fellow at Melbourne Law School Brendan Clift.
“Initially the CCP’s response was to say nothing. Its initial response is to censor bad news,” Mr Clift said.
“As the movement evolved, the messaging progressed from violence, through to accusations of separatism, to accusations of foreign involvement and the latest messaging has been terrorism.”
Several protesters who spoke to The New Daily said they were unfazed by China’s campaign.
“We trust the free world will not be fooled by such low-effort claims,” said Arkuar Ku, a 34-year-old systems analyst.
Mr Ku says the protesters have created their own name – ‘ChiNazi’ – to make fun of Beijing’s attempts to liken them to fascists.
“Some of pro-Hong Kong (protesters) created a term ChiNazi to fight back. It is clearly a wordplay in English,” he said.
“And it sounds like 痴那線 in Cantonese, which means completely crazy.”
But Mr Clift said it was important to acknowledge that some protesters had “gone too far”.
He claimed small groups had become violent in response to what they saw as unnecessary force by police.
“There’s been real police brutality and real disregard for collateral damage (with police using tear gas),” Mr Clift said.
Rallies in western countries have also become aggressive.
On Sunday in Melbourne, an ABC cameraman was reportedly attacked by pro-Beijing protesters.
But Jane Poon, head of Australia-Hong Kong Link, said they won’t be put off by violence – or lies.
“We listen to the Chinese protesters. What they say is “one China” or “Hong Kong is a part of China”. We aren’t looking for independence from China, It’s not true,” she said.
“What we already have, we don’t want to lose it.”
On Tuesday, Chinese officials called for greater protection for pro-Beijing groups involved in rallies in Australia.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said it was “reasonable” for Chinese students and citizens overseas to “express indignation and opposition against such words and deeds that attempt to separate China and smear its image”.
‘There’s no going back now’
There have been cases of Australian tourists shouting at protesters after they shut down Hong Kong airport, and confusion as to why – months on – locals in the city are still rallying.
The pro-democracy movement now has five demands:
- The controversial extradition bill that sparked the rallies must be officially withdrawn
- Chief executive Carrie Lam must resign
- The government must retract its characterisation of the protests as violent
- There must be an independent inquiry into police brutality, and
- Charges against protesters must be dropped.
But the CCP is unlikely to meet their demands and the protesters are unlikely to back down, said Charlie Lyons Jones of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“The issue is, that should Xi Jinping or Carrie Lam do such a thing, then both of them would look weak and that is a prospect that I find unlikely, given Xi‘s past behaviours as an uncompromising leader of the CCP,” Mr Lyons Jones said.
When asked if this could end in another Tiananmen Square, many protesters brush away the idea, but they do know they’re not giving up.
“For the Australians who don’t understand why we haven’t given up yet, there’s no going back now,” said one protester, a 24-year-old copywriter.
“Too many people have sacrificed in various ways already – 700 protesters arrested, many are charged with rioting and illegal assembly.
“A nurse got shot in the eye and is possibly blind permanently, and six people have suicided to the hopelessness of the political situation.”