What started in March as a weekend rally, was, by June, a movement one million strong. The first mass march that month was peaceful; a follow-up three days later was anything but. As projectiles rained down on police officers, they responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. In July, masked protesters stormed the parliament, graffitiing walls and defacing regional emblems. A month later, the airport was overrun. As Hong Kong’s apparent defence of democracy has intensified, so too has Beijing’s concerns of contagion. But now in its sixth month, there’s little sign of the unrest spreading beyond city limits.
The touchpaper, a bill permitting the prosecution of Hongkongers in mainland courts, was dropped as protests escalated – but civil strife has continued to spiral. The movement’s demands now include the removal of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, who endorsed the unpopular legislation, and an independent investigation into alleged police brutality. There is little doubt of officers’ heavy-handedness, but the protesters’ conduct has been questioned too – arson, assault, and the rampant destruction of property have all occurred.
While the violence has transfixed global audiences, it’s hard to gauge its resonance in mainland China. Citizens are fed news through the filters of Beijing, whose grip on the media is absolute. The protest’s chaotic fringes have been focused on, portraying the movement as a violent, anarchic insurrection. The spectre of terrorism has also be invoked, analysts say. A certain apathy pervades the population too, experts believe, with many mainlanders unwilling to reject state spin in search of the truth.
“[Chinese citizens] probably are not going to get full information, and to be honest they are probably not that interested in digging it out,” says Anthony Saich, a China expert at Harvard University. “It’s not a life-or-death, make-or-break issue for the middle class in mainland China. And I think many of them have bought into the Communist Party’s narrative that ‘without us, there will be chaos’”.
China-based foreign journalists, unrestricted by state censors, have held the line of impartiality. But accessing their coverage, even digitally, is difficult. While there is evidence of users evading Beijing’s ‘Great Firewall’, posts are often promptly removed, or – perhaps worse – rubbished by government affiliates. In August, Twitter closed a series of accounts involved in what it called an attempt to “sow political discord in Hong Kong”.
But Beijing’s grip on the narrative hasn’t entirely assuaged fears of the protest spreading. Last month, China’s public-security minister visited Guangdong, the nation’s most populous province and Hong Kong’s northerly neighbour. Inspecting local police forces, he urged officers to “resolutely defend the great southern gate of China’s political security” by tackling “all kinds of infiltration, sabotage and subversion”.
If the Hongkongers’ movement was to cross borders, Guangdong would be a logical starting point. Proximity aside, the two enjoy a shared culture, language, and history (many in the city-state are Guangdong refugees or their descendants). The region has a taste for rebellion, too. In 2011, residents of a village named Wukan rose up against state officials, expelling them on grounds of corruption. A police siege eventually brought the locals to heel, but not before a demonstrator was killed. Last year, a workers’ protest in the province was similarly suppressed.
The authorities are equally uncompromising in Hunan, a region just north of Guangdong. When Chen Siming, a 58-year-old local activist, shared a picture of himself covering one eye – a sign of solidarity with beleaguered Hongkongers – he was soon summoned to a nearby police station. “The taste of jail is unpleasant,” Chen was reportedly told, as officers threatened to lock him up and terrorise his family. It’s just one incident in a “battle” being fought throughout China, observers say.
“The government’s battle for Hong Kong is also being fought in mainland cities. The Chinese government is working overtime to threaten and detain mainlanders from sharing and commenting on the protests in Hong Kong for fear of what it may spark back home,” said Frances Eve, a member of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group.
While it’s clear that many in mainland China support the Hongkongers’ protest – with some even venturing into the city to participate – Beijing is prevailing in its containment efforts. With control of the airwaves, it can peddle a narrative that unfairly skews the demonstrators’ demands and exaggerates their violence. But the protesters must bear some blame for their tarnished image – trashed buildings and burning cars reflect poorly on their democratic cause.
Still, Hong Kong is a breeding ground of liberalism, a point not lost on China’s leadership. Like all repressive regimes, they fear reform and the forces fighting for it. As long as the risk of contagion persists, so too will Beijing’s heavy hand.