The protests in Hong Kong have just entered its 17th week. Following Carrie Lam’s decision to support a controversial extradition bill, which has since been reversed, thousands of people began to speak out and publicly protest against the region’s leadership and Chinese control. While the causes for the protest are clear, differences in global news coverage of the last few months are impacting perceptions of the struggle.
Coverage from Chinese media, Hong Kong media and American media all show distinct perspectives of the events, which has since created a variance of public opinion and understanding.
However, it is not just traditional media that has played a role in the protests. Non-traditional sources such as social media platforms and messaging apps have provided many people in Hong Kong and China with alternative ways to access information.
Sina Weibo, a blogging-based website, is one of the most widely-used social media platforms in China. According to BBC, Weibo had nearly 340 million active monthly users in 2017 and is one of many ways that the Chinese general public goes around government censors to access the news.
The official Chinese Central Television Weibo account, which has 89.5 million followers, plays an important part in reporting the protests for those in mainland China. Reports from CCTV on the protests mostly concentrate on violent tactics, such as destroying public facilities and attacking police forces.
One post from Chinese Central Television posted Sept. 2 read that, “since June, ‘LuanGangFenzihas’ used boycotting [the] extradition bill as an excuse to stir up trouble,, unlawful violence [has] leveled up gradually.”
LuangGangFenzi is a Chinese term, typically with a negative connotation, adopted to reference those protesting in Hong Kong.
BoYing Ye, an international student from China studying mechanical engineering, said that he learned of the protests from Chinese media organizations such as Tencent News. Ye agrees with the portrayal of the protesters in these media and sees the Hong Kong protest as a violent protest without any meaning.
“I got those impressions from the news. Although I haven’t got in touch with any protesters, I think if they are rational people, they [would] not do something like this,” Ye said.
Recently, the Chinese-state supported news channel CGTN has been under investigation by the British Office of Communications, or OFCOM. According to the Times, CGTN has been described as being the Chinese Communist Party’s “tongue and throat.”
In Hong Kong and Western media, the media is telling a different story. A Sept. 1 video posted by BBC shows several Hong Kong police officers using pepper spray and hitting suspected protesters with batons in a metro station. Other reports include Hong Kong protesters singing the city’s new anthem, named “Glory to Hong Kong,” and the protesters calling for U.S. intervention. Similar videos and photographs are found more often in Western media than in traditional Chinese media.
Jesse Zhang, an international student majoring in biological sciences and philosophy, said he read reports about the demonstrations from BBC.
“From pictures and videos, I can strongly feel the protesters’ dissatisfaction and [anger],” Zhang said. “I hope people understand why they are protesting.”
According to an article published by the New York Times, China is “aggressively” using state and social media to stir up nationalist sentiment. The article cites instances in which the CCP manipulated videos and images from the protests to create backlash in mainland China. For example, a woman who was struck in the eye during a clash with police was used by the Chinese media to falsely emphasize how protestors have been hurting one another during their riots.
“It’s very different than the way that the U.S media has focused on the protests — it is focused as a home-grown rage and as a product of the fact that China does not meet its commitment to maintain the ‘one country, two systems,’’’ said Tom Hollihan, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism focusing on political communication and media diplomacy. “There is very different media coverage.”
Hollihan said the effect of media coverage on the public’s views of this protest are important to note. He said Chinese media reports may be used as a strategy to prevent the protest in Hong Kong from expanding to the mainland where there is similar discontent.
“Most importantly, the protesters are not getting a sympathetic reaction from the citizens in the mainland and citizens in the mainland are inclined to argue that the Hong Kong protestors are better than the people in the mainland,” Hollihan said. “It’s a strategy that prevents the protest in Hong Kong with expanding to the mainland, where they may be similar discontent.”
The views not only differ among global media sources but also in the different generations represented in Hong Kong.
Eugene Chang, a junior majoring in aerospace engineering, was born and raised in Hong Kong and moved to the U.S when he was ten years old. Chang said that as a young immigrant influenced by democratic ideals, including the right to protest and freedom of speech, Eugene finds that his thoughts differ greatly from those of his family.
“[The] older generation of Hong Kong put family and safety first over their democracy,” Chang said. “[They are] more concerned with living the rest of [their] lives in harmony and not being involved in politics anymore. I think that’s why the old people dissociate themselves from the protest and even talk against it because it has got violent lately.”
Chang said one of the challenges of media with the Hong Kong protests is understanding how certain coverage from global media sources may be biased. He said that many Twitter accounts posting about the demonstrations mostly hold supportive views of the protest. In mainland China, the government has blocked Twitter, except for news organizations like CCTV.
Chang also believes that Western media often uses the narrative of the “freedom fighter” when discussing demonstrators. He believes that this coverage is heavily informed by Western values such as freedom of association and speech.
“But in reality, I feel like it’s gone to the point where it’s not even about the main objective anymore … it’s gone to the point where it’s just chaos,” Chang said. “It [is] a form of tribalism — it’s us against them. There is no in-between.”