• Free Speech and Its Enemies in Greater China

    Image: ​“Let’s show Hong Kongers what it means to kneel for your country!” Soon after Wang Liming (a.k.a. Rebel Pepper) put this cartoon online, a post calling him a “traitor” appeared on People’s Daily BBS. (Artist: Rebel Pepper 变态辣椒).

    Note from the China Blog editors: Issues of free speech, censorship, and attacks on journalists have made headlines around the world this month. The biggest news, of course, has come out of Europe, but some stories associated with the topics have broken that relate to Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. These topics are regular staples for some of the websites we track here at the China Blog, including the Hong Kong-based China Media Project and the Berkeley-based China Digital Times. This post is devoted to introducing Covering China from Cyberspace in 2014, a new e-book by the latter that focuses on political developments of the past year on the Chinese mainland, in Hong Kong, and in passing also Taiwan. Fittingly, given the headlines from Europe, it includes some pointed political cartoons from 2014, including the one shown above.  

    What follows are two excerpts from a section of the book dealing mainly with the Umbrella Movement that erupted in Hong Kong last September, but also with the Sunflower protests that rocked Taiwan before that. Each of these events has been the subject of essays for the main page of the Los Angeles Review of Books (see, for example, this and this) and they were compared and connected in a previous post for this blog. In the excerpts that follow, readers can see how CDT’s latest e-book deals with, first, threats to freedom of the press in Hong Kong during the months preceding the Umbrella Movement, and, secondly, efforts by the mainland authorities to control the narrative of the protest surge once it was underway.


    Unhappiness with Beijing’s increasing controls mounted in Hong Kong throughout the year, starting with protests over attacks on journalists and culminating in street protests that blocked major roads in downtown Hong Kong for more than two months. As Hong Kong approached the 17th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule, tensions mounted between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy forces in the city, with the latter expressing growing concerns about encroachment on the city’s freewheeling press and civil society, increasing economic inequality, and a culture of “crony-capitalism.” With an approaching deadline of 2017 for Hong Kong to implement universal suffrage in the election of chief executive, as set forth in the Basic Law, the stage was set for a standoff with Beijing over voting rights for Hong Kong’s seven million residents.

    In January, Hong Kong’s premier Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao was shaken by the reassignment of its chief editor, Kevin Lau Chun-to. Lau was then brutally stabbed on February 27 in what police sources have referred to as a “classic triad hit… designed to send a warning.” Eleven suspects in Lau’s stabbing were arrested in mid-March, while Lau remained in hospital. His recovery is likely to take years.

    While Lau was serving as chief editor, Ming Pao was a reporting partner in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists project that revealed the offshore holdings of many Chinese elitesLau was replaced by Chong Tien-siong, a Malaysian newspaper editor who has supported compulsory “patriotic education” in Hong Kong schools. Patriotic education was successfully blocked by summer-long protests and the threat of a teachers’ strike in 2012.

    Beijing’s increasingly heavy hand in dealing with Hong Kong’s media seemed to be a harbinger of greater political controls. In June, Beijing released a white paper that reasserted the Communist Party’s authority over Hong Kong. The document, which spelled out a controversial interpretation of the “one country, two systems” model that was negotiated as part of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, sparked widespread criticism from people in Hong Kong.

    In an informal referendum on electoral reforms following the release of the white paper, almost 800,000 people voted on proposals that would allow the public to directly elect the chief executive in 2017. Beijing declared the referendum “illegal” and issued a propaganda directive ordering websites and media to “ensure that no information related to the referendum appears online.” The pro-Beijing Alliance for Peace and Democracy launched a rival referendum which asked participants to express opposition to Occupy Central. Organizers claimed they received close to one million signatures.

    On July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, tens of thousands of residents marched in the largest protest gathering since 2003, holding banners calling for full democracy. In subsequent weeks, pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong escalated their demands for universal suffrage and other democratic reforms.

    Meanwhile, Hong Kong media continued to suffer a series of assaults. The Hong Kong Journalists Association released a report in July calling the past year in Hong Kong the “darkest for press freedom in several decades.” In early summer, the pro-democracy Hong Kong website, blog, and news aggregator House News shut down, citing a combination of political pressure and low advertising revenue. House News co-founder Tony Tsoi Tung-ho wrote a farewell letter that warned a “white terror” had forced him to close the site in order to protect himself and those around him…


    The Beijing government worked very hard to control the narrative of the protests for mainland viewers and to censor media coverage through a series of directives. As the protests surged in response to police brutality, propaganda officials instructed:

    All websites must immediately clear away information about Hong Kong students violently assaulting the government and about “Occupy Central.” Promptly report any issues. Strictly manage interactive channels, and resolutely delete harmful information. This [directive] must be followed precisely. (September 28, 2014)

    In an unusual move, manufacturers were barred from producing items that could be used in protests. Following the display of a banner saying “We want full universal suffrage” from Hong Kong’s iconic Lion Rock, authorities responded with the directive:

    Mainland manufacturers must not produce Hong Kong umbrellas, yellow ribbons, or items related to Lion Rock, including postcards, T-shirts, rain gear, and all other related patterns or goods. (November 14, 2014)

    Online discussion was also curbed through lists of related search terms on Weibo that were filtered, including: “Hong Kong + students”; “Hong Kong + student strike”; “Hong Kong + open fire”; “Hong Kong + disobey orders”; “Hong Kongers + take to the streets”; “citizens disobey orders”; and many more.

    For many mainland Chinese, the censorship efforts worked. In media interviews, mainlanders acknowledged knowing little or only having a negative opinion of the Hong Kong protests. Yet others found ways to express solidarity online. When a letter from a Shenzhen high school student urging his peers to abandon the protests was published in the Global Times, netizens quickly jumped on factual inconsistencies in the letter and quoted Chilean artist and free spirit Alejandro Jodorowsky: “Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness.” The quotation quickly became a meme