While most modern states, democratic or otherwise, use some sort of reasonable disinformation, communist and other despotic regimes are notorious for propaganda and information manipulation. Chinese government headed by the Communist Party too is propagandist no less.
It has been months (since March 2019) when anti-government protests in Hong Kong (HK) first broke out. HK was a British colony acquired on a hundred-year lease until 1997 when its territorial sovereignty was restored to the People’s Republic of China.
The spate of protests was sparked off as a reaction to a proposed extradition bill that would have expanded the range of countries where suspected offenders may be extradited to Mainland China. Fearing political persecution given the history of human rights violation is rampant in the PRC, HK citizens have taken to the streets, literally. Tens of thousands of protesters swarmed the lanes and by-lanes of HK. The protesters and critics fear a ‘legalised kidnapping’ where Chinese authorities would extradite political dissidents to Mainland China under the proposed law. Last Sunday, close to 20 lakh demonstrators with umbrellas and masks took part in a peaceful protest on the streets of Hong Kong. Protesters also blocked the entrance to government headquarters in the Admiralty districts. Considering the length of the protest, it is remarkable that it has largely remained peaceful. Protestors, however, have accused the HK police of brutality and excesses.
Despite these massive citywide protests simmering for months, there was a complete blackout in Chinese media about these events. The blackout was eventually ‘lifted’ in June, almost three months after the protests had started. Reports also suggest that several Chinese e-commerce sites such as Alibaba Group have blocked the sales of umbrellas, black T-shirts, banners, and other protest-related merchandise. These articles are popular among the protestors.
The social media giant Twitter disclosed in a blog post a few days ago that it has suspended 936 alleged handles based in China. These handles, tied to the Chinese government agencies, were attempting to fan political discord and undermine the legacy of the protest movement. Facebook too, on the other hand, said it removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts involved in disinformation about the protest. These accounts were alleged to have been involved in deceptive tactics to circulate news about the protest. They were all found to be linked to the Chinese government. It must be noted that many Western social media platforms and search engines are blocked in China. Even on domestic search engines, the results are filtered and scrubbed.
In addition, the Chinese media has targeted the leaders of the protest – Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee, Anson Chan, and Albert Ho – calling them ‘traitors’. It alleged that the ‘Gang of Four’ was agents of the ‘Western anti-China forces’ and they ‘bring ruin to Hong Kong’. According to The South China Morning Post, “the propaganda assault was carried out on the social media account and the overseas edition of Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, and the official WeChat account of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, a powerful Party arm that overseas law enforcement and the judiciary.”
China also used the recent developments in J&K and Ladakh to divert world’s attention from Hong Kong. The showdown in the UNSC over this issue was nothing more than a ‘wag the dog’ situation. ‘Wag the Dog’ was a popular Hollywood movie of the late 1990s. The film is about media manipulation where a president in the middle of his reelection campaign is involved in a sex scandal. To divert the attention from the brewing scandal that can cost him dearly, president’s media advisors invent a war in a far off land of Albania.
While it is expected of Chinese state media to ignore and distort the Hong Kong protests, Indian media’s relative silence on the issue close to home too is puzzling.
(The writer is a graduate of JNU and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and contributes on the Indic knowledge tradition, culture, history and current affairs)