Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Censors Just Had Their Busiest Day of the Year

It was more active even than June 4, and proof that Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests have spooked Beijing.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

On July 1, tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters flooded the streets of central Hong Kong, braving intermittent rain and, in some cases, staying out well past midnight until they were forcibly cleared by police. Back on the mainland, censors were quietly active. According to Weiboscope, a project of Hong Kong University that tracks censorship of active users on Weibo, China’s massive microblogging platform, the percentage of deleted posts surpassed even that on June 4, the 25th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.

This year’s July 1 anniversary, which marks Hong Kong’s 1997 return to mainland Chinese sovereignty after more than 100 years of British colonial rule, became a flashpoint for Hong Kongers anxious about encroachment from Beijing. These fears became more acute after a June 10 white paper issued by Beijing claimed "comprehensive jurisdiction" over the city, which seemed to disregard the "one country, two systems" principle underpinning Hong Kong’s handover. Organizers estimated that crowds reached about 510,000, while police pegged turnout closer to 98,000.

The date was also apparently a flashpoint for censors. According to Weiboscope, censors deleted over 70 posts per 10,000 tracked on July 1; in comparison, they deleted over 64 per 10,000 on June 4. Weibo censors deleted images of Hong Kong streets packed with protesters, some holding signs calling for universal suffrage, some being restrained by Hong Kong police. Even photos with captions as seemingly innocuous as "Hong Kong, right now" or "Pearl of the Orient," a nostalgic term for the port city, got the axe. Weibo censors blocked the search term "7/1 march" and deleted comments expressing solidarity with the protesters’ cause. A poem calling Hong Kong a "window to heaven" and a "last hope" made the rounds on the platform, but censors actively scrubbed references to it. 

While China’s censors were culling chatter about the massive march, state-run media was focusing on a far smaller gathering. A report by government-run broadcaster China Central Television cheerfully documented the small official flag-raising ceremony marking the anniversary, which only attracted around 2,500 people — including government officials and participants — to Hong Kong’s downtown Bauhinia Square. Both state-run Xinhua News and party mouthpiece People’s Daily echoed that coverage with articles that provided a play-by-play of the flag-raising ceremony. Some Weibo users subtly mocked the fact that July 1 is also the 93rd anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. They paired pictures of the amassed protestors with faux-congratulatory captions, like this one: "Today is the Communist Party’s birthday, and this is Hong Kong residents’ birthday gift!"   

Those wry takes didn’t last long either. But the censors’ busy day underscores just how seriously central authorities take the fallout from Hong Kong pro-democracy activism. And it suggests they do not yet feel comfortable relying on persuasion alone to make Beijing’s case.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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