Overt action of amassing armoured carriers and paramilitary forces in Shenzhen, and covertly running a social media disinformation campaign have failed to quell protests in Hong Kong.
Last week, China called for “closed consultations” at the United Nations on India’s move to revoke Article 370 in Kashmir. This was rather ironic given the tethers of China’s “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong, which has witnessed 11 straight weeks of protests. In fact, the UN High Commission for Human Rights has called for an independent enquiry into the use of force by law enforcement (police) in Hong Kong. But China’s double-barrel gun—overt action of amassing armed carriers and paramilitary forces in Shenzhen, and covertly running a social media disinformation campaign on Hong Kong—seems to have backfired with little let up and respite in protests. Why has China failed to dent the protests?
The last few weeks of protests have culminated in fierce clashes with the police, which used tear gas, rubber bullets and sponge grenades on the protesters. The protests not only led to the shutdown of the Hong Kong airport, but also of the clockwork metro system. The protests started in June over a proposed extradition Bill. The government led by Carrie Lam, the Beijing-backed Chief Executive, remained intransigent, refusing to formally withdraw the Bill and slammed the protesters as ‘rioters’. Since then, protests escalated, demanding that the Bill be formally withdrawn, the arrested protesters be released, an independent enquiry into police action be constituted, and Ms Lam step down.
In swift response, China moved armoured carriers that made their way across to a sports stadium in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong. The People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force, stood on stand-by, a chilling reminder of the Chinese might. Concerned, the US President Donald Trump tweeted the images of armoured carriers moving in, asking everyone to be ‘calm and safe!’. On its part, China said that the troops were taking part in a military drill in Guangdong province.
But, clearly, China’s “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys” was to warn Hong Kong of the consequences of prolonged protests. As if to convey the message, the People’s Daily posted a video of a mock drill where an officer says in Cantonese (Hong Kongers speak Cantonese) “Stop the violence, repent and be saved”—a message that couldn’t be any clearer. But all this, rather than intimidate and cow down, has infuriated and inflamed Hong Kong.
It is plausible that more than China’s overt game—the carriers and the troops in Shenzhen—it is China’s covert, underhand game that has got the Hong Konger’s goat. In the current political scenario, Hong Kongers, it is said, can barely tell a “cop from a comrade”—allegations that the demonstrations have been infiltrated to break ranks abound. The Straits Times (Singapore) has reported of “decoys among protesters” and Channel News Asia (Singapore) has noted that Hong Kong police has “infiltrated protest rallies to make surprise attacks.” Officers from China are said to have been dispatched to “fortify the ranks” in Hong Kong.
China’s covert actions include the war being waged on social media platforms. Social media within China has erupted with fury and condemnation of the protesters in Hong Kong. The New York Times (New York) reported of one Weibo user writing “beating them (Hong Kong protesters) to pulp is not enough… They must be beaten to death. Just send a few tanks over to clean them up.” China Daily has spoken glowingly of an online community named Di Bar, described as “a group of Chinese who live throughout the world” who have emphasised “resolute support for the Hong Kong police to arrest rioters” and of demonstrators congregating at the Trafalgar Square (London) chanting “one nation, one China.”
But questions about the credibility of the posts on the social media platforms have arisen given that Facebook and Twitter have recently detailed a “state-backed social media campaign run from China” to undermine ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong. Twitter (which is blocked in China) has suspended a thousand accounts, accessed through virtual private networks (VPNs). These Twitter accounts pushed the dominant Chinese narrative of responsible police, irresponsible protesters and Western forces stirring protests. One inflammatory Twitter message read “We don’t want you radical people (protesters) in Hong Kong. Just get out of here!”.
Twitter has said that it would no longer accept advertisements from “state-controlled news media entities.” Twitter has also taken down a larger group of 200,000 accounts, which came up as Twitter began banning some of the earlier accounts.
There have been inflammatory posts on Facebook likening the protesters to ISIS fighters and cockroaches. One Facebook post asked, “Protesters, ISIS fighters, What’s the difference?”. Another blamed “They” (protesters) for blocking train doors, almost killing a man at the airport and taking a nurse’s eye, likening them to cockroaches. Facebook has removed five Facebook accounts, seven pages and three groups. Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policym has said, “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government.”
Paradoxically, China’s actions have enthused civil servants, lawyers, teachers, students and even airline employees of Hong Kong’s flag carrier Cathay Pacific to throw the gauntlet in the protests.
Hong Kong is also eliciting more international sympathy. In the US, both Republicans and Democrats have rallied behind Hong Kong, sending the message that military action in Hong Kong will be a political blunder. Republican Lindsay Graham has said “30 years after Tiananmen Square, all Americans stand with the peaceful protesters of Hong Kong.” Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, has called for “withdrawing the dangerous extradition Bill, investigating and ending police violence and granting universal suffrage.” In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that he would back the protesters “every inch of the way.”
Given China’s supremacy in Asia, Hong Kong offers a significant learning curve. For a rising power, clearly, the path to negotiations cannot be littered with intimidation and clumsy manipulation of social media platforms, but with transparency, accommodation and higher moral ground.