BEIJING — Chinese officials moved quickly to control news reports of the pro-democracy demonstrations that began in Hong Kong over the weekend and by Sunday night had turned into the largest street clashes in decades between civilians and the territory’s police force.
A directive from the central propaganda department in Beijing ordered websites to delete any mention of the unrest. The mainland news websites that did discuss the protests mostly posted a short article from Xinhua, the state news agency, that gave few details of what was unfolding down south. Some sites published editorial essays from Global Times, a state-run populist newspaper, taking a typically hard-line stand.
Starting Sunday night, officials overseeing Internet censorship blocked Instagram, the popular photo-sharing social network, presumably to ensure that images of the rallies would not spread. Only Internet users who had software to leap over the online control system known as the Great Firewall could get on Instagram. The action by censors was consistent with earlier moves against other Western-based social media sites, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube; those blocks, put in place during recent periods of political turmoil, still endure.
The words “Occupy Central,” the name of the broad Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, and other similar terms were banned Monday from searches on Sina Weibo, China’s biggest microblog platform.
There was erratic censorship on Weixin, or WeChat, a popular cellphone networking application — some articles were not blocked in China, and users could forward them. Not all of the articles were supportive of the protesters: One essay making the rounds said Hong Kong residents were ungrateful, in the same language Chinese officials often use to speak of rebellious Tibetans and Uighurs. But by early Tuesday, the article had been blocked. Some Chinese political observers and individuals who work at state-run media outlets who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they thought that many ordinary mainland Chinese were not closely following the events unfolding in Hong Kong, in part because of previous censorship of political news.
Some Chinese news organizations reported on the Hong Kong protests, but strictly from the Communist Party’s perspective. China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, had a front-page article on the events, with a photograph of protesters carrying open umbrellas confronting lines of police officers. There was no explanation of why people had the umbrellas (they were used to protect against pepper spray). The headline and article focused on condemnation of the protesters by the authorities. The English-language print edition of Global Times published a similar front-page photo and article.
One editorial by Global Times in Chinese and English accused radical opposition forces in Hong Kong of “ruining Hong Kong’s street image” and said the earlier decision by mainland officials on the 2017 elections, labeled unacceptable by democracy advocates in Hong Kong, would not be reversed. A more incendiary Chinese op-ed published in Global Times by Wang Qiang, a scholar at the Shanghai Institute of Armed Police, said that if the Hong Kong police could not control the situation, the Chinese military would intervene. By early afternoon, those essays had been deleted from the newspaper’s Chinese website, though they had been published in the morning print editions, and the English version of the unsigned editorial remained online.
There was no indication, though, that Chinese leaders were seriously considering that option. Leung Chun-ying, the leader of Hong Kong who is allied with the Chinese Communist Party, said Sunday that the Chinese military would not be called in. After the bloody military crackdown around Tiananmen Square in 1989, leaders of the People’s Liberation Army decided that the army should not get involved in controlling civilian protests. That job in mainland China has fallen to the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary organization.
Among those Chinese who were following the protests, news spread via semiprivate social media networks and by word of mouth, with scores of supporters shaving their heads as a show of solidarity or making plans to travel to Hong Kong to take a closer look, according to telephone interviews and social media messages.
On Sunday, Ou Biaofeng, a resident of Zhuzhou in Hunan province, posted pictures of himself with a shaved head on his Twitter account and on Weixin, his fingers raised in a “V” for victory.
By Monday, Ou, who said he was an independently employed social activist, said the “Going Bald for Hong Kong” movement, though small, had spread, with 30 or 40 others shaving their heads in several cities, including Guangzhou, Shanghai and Hefei. Many of those supporters had posted on Weixin what they said were photographs of themselves with bald heads.
“I think we’ll get over 100 soon,” Ou said. “Our goal is to support Hong Kong people in their protest for real democracy, for elections where they have a real choice. This protest is an encouragement for our own democratic ideals.”