Shenzhen is only a 14-minute train ride away from Hong Kong but a world apart when it comes to the flow of information. When images of the violent protests in the former British colony began to filter through on Chinese social media, 24-year-old web designer Stephanie asked her friend who studies in the US to send her detailed press reports.
By late afternoon, she and her colleagues were watching videos of confrontations between young demonstrators and the Hong Kong police being uploaded on to YouTube at their company, one of China’s big technology groups that provides unfiltered internet access to its employees.
“Everyone glanced at the videos. No one was particularly interested after they got the gist of what was going on,” she said, who only spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Some complained it would be inconvenient if they couldn’t go shopping in Hong Kong for a while.”
As Hong Kong has become embroiled in its worst crisis in decades over a proposed extradition law, which would allow anyone passing through the territory to be sent to mainland China to stand trial, Chinese censorship and misinformation is widening the gulf between people on either side of the border.
On June 10, the day after about 1m people marched through Hong Kong demanding the government withdraw the bill, the official China Daily newspaper reported that 800,000 people had signed a petition in support of the proposed law.
The following weekend, after Hong Kong saw the largest protests in its history when about 2m people peacefully demonstrated against the bill, the China Daily carried a report that the city’s parents had marched against US interference in the territory and condemned “foreign entities” for misleading young people in the city.
The narrative in Chinese state media aimed at domestic audiences has focused on the violence of a radical few while the framing of stories for the outside world is that the US should stop meddling in Beijing’s internal affairs, even as the government in Hong Kong suspended the bill “indefinitely” following the demonstrations.
Mainland Chinese who want information beyond the official narrative on the protests face the uphill battle of staying one step ahead of censors on Chinese social media such as WeChat and Weibo, which have scrubbed details of the events.
In interviews with 14 young mainland Chinese who mostly work in high tech or study at top universities in Shenzhen, many described how they learnt about the protests through word of mouth or online — photos of the protests and screenshots of external news reports escaped censorship algorithms by being posted upside down or covered in squiggles and shapes — rather than through the news.
While some knew the dispute was connected to a proposed law, many said they were unsure of the details of the conflict or what the protesters wanted.
Beijing has carefully curated its messages in state media and coverage of these protests has been “fairly typical and predictable”, according to Anne-Marie Brady, a China expert at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “But it is always remarkable to observe how effective the Chinese Communist party is at maintaining the censorship boundaries, even in the era of global internet.”
One mainland student who is studying in Hong Kong said he was disheartened by how little his friends at home knew about the protest: “I try my best [to] promote and explain via WeChat moments but that’s also risky . . . [People in Hong Kong] are so brave, tough and strong . . . the power is so encouraging.”
The lack of contact might be to blame for the lack of knowledge. Zheng Ge, a law professor who teaches at Peking University’s Shenzhen campus but also taught in Hong Kong for 10 years, said: “In order for young people to be interested in the Hong Kong protests, they need to have concrete ties with Hong Kong.”
That separation has benefited China in its attempts to control the narrative. But it also raises questions about how Beijing will be able to roll out its signature Greater Bay Area policy, which links Hong Kong and nearby Macau with nine mainland Chinese cities including Shenzhen to turn the area into a powerhouse of innovation and economic growth.
For now, though, the views of one student in Shenzhen are not uncommon. “I think young people in Shenzhen aren’t that interested in the protests in Hong Kong because of our own prejudices,” said Irving, a 24-year-old who is studying for his masters degree. “We think Hong Kongers are British lackeys who are arrogant and see themselves as better than us.
“We’ve also grown up in different political systems. China has always been authoritarian whereas Hong Kong hasn’t been. Plus, we don’t even use the same social media platforms — that makes it hard to communicate.”
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