30 Sep 2014

Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of Censors

If you want to buy a yellow ribbon to tie round your ponytail (or your old oak tree) or to decorate a birthday gift don’t bother to look online in China. The phrase “yellow ribbon” has been censored.

It’s not hard to work out why. Yellow ribbons are one of the symbols of the Occupy Central With Love and Peace protest movement in Hong Kong.30_ribbon_g_w

“Hong Kong” is banned too. And “police”. Today’s issue of the China Digital Times lists the most censored phrases on Weibo, the Chinese version of twitter. The censors, a small army deployed to do battle against words, are even busier than usual.

Yesterday was the most censored day of the year in China, with 152 per 10,000 Weibo posts censored, according to the Weiboscope project at the University of Hong Kong.

As a result, few Chinese people are aware of the scale of the protests in Hong Kong. Newspapers, websites and TV have been given orders by the government department in charge of propaganda: “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.”

International channels, including CNN and BBC World, which are broadcast with a few seconds delay in China, go to black when scenes of the protesting throngs come up – not that most Chinese would know, as foreign channels are only available in hotels and apartments where foreigners stay.

A quick survey of official Chinese websites such as The People’s Daily or CCTV (Chinese Central TV) reveals riveting headlines such as “Flowers Laid at Monument to People’s Heroes” and (my personal favourite) “China is not to blame for gloom in global stock market”. (Did anyone say it was?) Protests, what protests?

Of course, some Chinese, especially the young and digitally savvy, get round the Great Firewall and find out what’s happening, but censorship generally works. People in China are generally more worried about their own problems than about students in Hong Kong wanting a universal franchise. They, after all, have nowhere near the level of freedom people enjoy in Hong Kong.Protesters hold their mobile phones as they block the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters, in Hong Kong

Nonetheless, the censorship reveals how nervous the authorities are. As long as the protests are confined to Hong Kong, they are manageable but if they spread over the border it could be a real threat to the Communist party. We always talk about the unrest in 1989 as “Tiananmen Square”, but that was only one part of it – the protests had spread to 400 cities across China, which is why Deng Xiao Ping and his comrades brought in the People’s Liberation Army.

It’s started raining in Hong Kong, a great thundery downpour washing through the crowds. Everyone has their umbrellas up. But I bet you that by the end of today ‘umbrella’ will be a banned word in China. The protestors used umbrellas to protect themselves from the pepper spray used by the police on Sunday night and now some are calling this “the umbrella protest”. Another problem for the people’s army of censors.

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter.


Tweets by @lindseyhilsum