The massive summit saw empty streets in Hangzhou and a spate of social media deletions.
On Sept. 4 and 5, heads of 20 of the world’s wealthiest nations convened in the southern Chinese city of Hangzhou for the annual G-20 summit. It marked China’s first time as host of the major international event, which it did with the degree of splendor and pageantry befitting the country that hosted the gaudy 2008 Olympics in Beijing – including a gala produced by none other than Zhang Yimou, who also directed the Olympics Opening Ceremonies, performed entirely in water with hundreds of dancers and complex holography. The government also took similarly draconian measures to ensure that this latest show went off without a hitch. For China, a country that spends more on its domestic security apparatus than its defense budget, the primary focus of its massive state controls was, once again, its own people, and their opinions.
Sept. 4, the first day of the G-20 summit, was the single most censored day on Chinese social media in the past 12 months, according to Weiboscope, a censorship-tracking tool operated by the University of Hong Kong — topping even the severe online restrictions that occurred on the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution in May, the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, and the international court ruling on the South China Sea on July 12. Commentary on social media site Weibo was heavily scrubbed, sparing just a handful of fawning responses. (One Sept. 4 post by state broadcaster China Central Television, for example, was shared more than 20,000 times, yet showed just six comments. “See how China’s Hangzhou amazes the world!” read one.) The comments sections for many other posts were disabled entirely — a rare measure usually taken only for the most sensitive of news items.
Censorship wasn’t limited to Weibo. China’s tightly controlled news outlets provided tightly scripted coverage of the event, obeying directives sent from government authorities instructing how to cover the gathering and what should be ignored or deleted from news websites. Minute-by-minute accounts of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s role at the G-20 dominated major news sites for days; “Xi Jinping meets reporters” and “Xi Jinping gives opening remarks” headlined official news service Xinhua’s dedicated microsite, while another proclaimed, “The waters of Hangzhou contain the world.” One widely syndicated Sept. 6 article from Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily hinted at vague criticism in an upbeat article title “Hosting the G20 Not Worth It? Here Are the 10 Big Benefits China Gets From It!”
Scant evidence remains online of what Hangzhou’s 8.9 million locals might have wished to say. In a deleted Weibo comment captured by mirror site Freeweibo, one user wrote, “The meeting of just a few dozen people has made it impossible for the [people of Hangzhou] to do business; there are inspections and limits on movement; the cost of logistics has soared.” Another replied, “The waters of West Lake are the tears of the people,” referring to the body of water for which Hangzhou is famous. Guo Enping, a government employee in Zhejiang province, of which Hangzhou is the capital, penned an article called “Hangzhou, Shame on You” in which he criticized the enormous resources the government had poured into the event and the massive disruptions that Hangzhou city residents had suffered in their daily lives. The article appeared online but was soon removed; according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an NGO, Guo was fired from his job and detained for 10 days.
The clearing of the virtual public square echoed what was happening on Hangzhou’s streets. Official measures, including a mandatory public holiday, forced more than two million residents to leave town, particularly those living in apartment complexes close to the G-20 venue. Each day, only half of the city’s private cars were permitted on roads. Migrant workers left the city after factories were closed for more than a week before the summit began in order to ensure blue skies in a usually heavily polluted city. At one restaurant, city officials removed cooks who were ethnically Uighur, a Chinese Muslim ethnic minority that Beijing blames for violence in its northwestern region. Normally congested highways were left empty, creating what some observers dubbed a “ghost town.”
The enforced mass exodus had another, perhaps intended, effect: It was difficult for foreign reporters covering G-20 to perform “man on the street” interviews to suss out how city residents felt about the event and accompanying restrictions. The BBC’s John Sudworth reported that city authorities trailed him, warning remaining residents not to speak to him. The combined effect of the online and offline restrictions was a near total silencing of unofficial opinion.
It’s hard to overstate the importance Beijing placed on the Hangzhou summit. It’s the most important occasion in China’s history in which so many world leaders have converged upon the nation at once. In previous years, China’s requests at G-20 summits have at times gone unfulfilled, such as repeated requests to be given a more representative stake in multilateral organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Now China is the world’s second-largest economy, with its own international financial institution to command and enormous spending power that it increasingly leverages in its relations with Southeast Asian, African, and the Middle Eastern nations – and at the first G-20 held on its own soil, Beijing aimed to showcase this power.
G-20 summits always feature tight security. But Beijing is increasingly eager for the world to accept it as a leader among even the world’s most powerful states. The tight censorship and security measures accomplished their intended purpose — the summit went off without security breaches, and China’s online spaces glowed with support. To China’s leaders, a flawless and awe-inspiring world summit helped China announce its new status to the world. In that vision, a critical domestic public just didn’t fit.
Photo credit: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images