Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution Won't Spread
Are Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests contagious? The Chinese government, never one to take chances with such things, certainly isn't doing so now in dealing with the Umbrella Revolution. Since demonstrations first began to swell this past weekend, mainland authorities have clamped down on any references to Hong Kong in social media, blockedInstagram (the last major foreign social-media service to have an uncensored presence in China), and strictly regulated what mainstream news sites could say about events in the Chinese-ruled city. Yet despite these efforts, plenty of protest news seems to be leaking through.
The proof is in the censorship itself. According to Weiboscope, a social-media analysis site at the University of Hong Kong, 152 out of every 10,000 posts to the Sina Weibo social media site were deleted on Sunday, when Hong Kong police used tear gas and pepper spray on protesters. That's roughly five times the preceding week's average, and double that which occurred during this year's 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Many if notmost of the deleted posts maintained at Weiboscope expressed admiration for protesters.
But the Weiboscope archive is hardly comprehensive, and the range of emotions that Chinese feel toward Hong Kong is much broader than a cache of admiring tweets. Indeed, relations between mainlanders and Hong Kong Chinese have been tense and complicated for several years now. In early 2012, Apple Daily -- the city's most ardently pro-democratic newspaper -- ran an advertisement referring to the city's mainland visitors as locusts who were taking up space in the city's maternity wards. The ensuing culture war has barely flagged since, with mainlanders firing their own salvos at Hong Kongers for being insufficiently loyal to a shared Chinese destiny.
The divisions are deep and widening and yet -- curiously -- there's very little overt sign of these resentments in censored or uncensored social media. Consider an odd Monday afternoon post to Sina Weibo by Exercise Book, the pseudonym for one of the site's more popular users (with 8.5 million followers). In it, he invokes Hong Kong's well-known role as the epicenter of an iPhone 6 gray market catering mostly to Apple-crazed mainlanders. (The new iPhones won't go on sale in China until Oct. 17 due to licensing issues.) "Treat Hong Kong a little better," he wrote. "Everyone still wants to go there and buy the iPhone6."
This isn't the sort of thing that would go viral outside of China. But inside the country, it's been reposted more than 6,500 times and generated more than 6,000 comments. For many, it's a comic (yes, comic -- the comment thread is filled with laughing emoticons) reminder that Chinese society is so thoroughly controlled by the government that people must travel to Hong Kong for something as simple as a smartphone. For others -- especially the censors who have allowed the post to stay up -- it's something else: a backhanded reminder of the value that Hong Kong brings to China. And for many commenters, the post is an easy target for quick jibes like: "It's Hong Kong that should be treating the Mainland better."
What really emerges from Exercise Book's thread, and the deleted posts stored at Weiboscope, is simple curiosity: China's online communities are anxious to know more about what's happening in Hong Kong than what censors will allow. So, offers are made to share images and news stories; links are passed around. For those who seek it, a narrative about what's happening in Hong Kong slowly emerges.
Of course, if you go looking among the deleted posts or the extant comment threads on Sina Weibo, it's all but impossible to find anyone even hinting that such information should be used to foment umbrella revolutions on the mainland. Indeed, the most striking characteristic of even supportive posts is how the "praise" and "blessings" users are sending to Hong Kong sound like the sort of good wishes that one might bestow on a foreign country rather than one's own. For the regime at least, that's one unexpected benefit of the troubling divisions that have grown between the mainland and Hong Kong over the last several years.
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Adam Minter at email@example.com