Tea Leaf Nation

The Revolution Will Not Be Instagrammed

Mainland Chinese felt no effects from the protests roiling Hong Kong -- until Beijing pulled the plug on another social network. 

Getty Images
Getty Images

As Hong Kong’s streets rock with protests and what many feel is a draconian police response, Chinese cyberspace is erupting with bitter complaints about yet another instance of blanket censorship. On Sept. 28, Chinese web users were furious over the shutdown of popular photo-sharing service Instagram, which went suddenly offline in China following the eruption of pro-democracy protests in the special autonomous region of Hong Kong that police tried to quell by volleying tear gas at the crowds. 

Though specific user statistics for mainland China were not available, the platform had been increasingly popular among Chinese over the last few years, especially since so many other foreign social media sites were unavailable. (Instagram has more than 200 million worldwide users, most of them outside of the United States.) The shutdown did not appear to be a technical glitch, as Instagram remains available in Hong Kong and elsewhere outside China. It’s not the first time that Instagram has been targeted by Chinese authorities. In July, the Instagram app suddenly disappeared from China’s Andriod app stores, though service remained available for those who had already downloaded it. 

While the exact reason behind the shutdown was not immediately confirmable, it seemed likely that the sudden mainland disruption was linked to the flood of images related to the Hong Kong protests on Instagram. Those protests stem from anger over Beijing instituting requirements that candidates for the former British colony’s head of government, the chief executive, must be vetted by Beijing before voters can weigh in. Wen Yunchao, a New York-based Chinese blogger and free speech advocate told Foreign Policy that he thought the link was obvious. Before the shutdown, "many Chinese people" were "using Instagram to share pictures of Occupy Central," he said, referring to a civil disobedience movement that has organized the ongoing demonstration. Using the hashtags #hk, #hongkong and #occupycentral, users have been posting images of support and solidarity, including pictures of a yellow ribbon against a black background and slogans such as, "We cannot keep calm because Hong Kong is dying." Instagram user @Edwinahipwellwong posted a message saying, "We are in tears but not because of the tear gas." Another posting under the username @Aobhinnzhang posted a picture of a young man in a gas mask with the caption: "Don’t throw tear gas — we can cry by ourselves." Chinese authorities, which have not yet reported the protests in major state media, likely do not want such images to be the way mainland netizens learn of the events. 

China regularly scrubs the Internet of content the government considers potentially destabilizing. After deadly ethnic riots erupted in Urumqi in China’s remote Xinjiang region in 2009, the government blocked access to Twitter and Facebook. Both sites remain unavailable in China. Instagram, and its parent company Facebook, did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment. 

On China’s Twitter-like social media site Weibo, many web users cursed the shutdown, while others posted sobbing emoticons or screen grabs of their blank Instagram feeds. One Weibo post, shared more than 4,000 times, noted that Instagram now ranked among the numerous other overseas web services that have been blocked in China in recent years: "Instagram has finally joined the family of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Line and Snapchat. Farewell." A raft of comments cropped up underneath that post including this sardonic observation, a nod to the virtually offline existence of people in neighboring North Korea: "Can’t laugh at North Korea anymore." Another wrote in a separate posting: "Instagram, like Malaysia Airlines, has suddenly disappeared."

Prominent Beijing rights activist Hu Jia told FP via Twitter that Instagram has been extremely popular among his friends. The well-known activist and artist Ai Weiwei counts among China’s "power users." Hu said the platform was embraced by many inside China because unlike Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, it hadn’t yet been blocked. Chinese authorities didn’t previously pay much attention to Instagram, Hu said, because officials didn’t see a photo-sharing site to be as threatening as a text-based social media site. But that changed several months ago when people started to share more Dalai Lama photos, Hu said. People also used the platform to share images of commemorations in Hong Kong related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement and a protest march in the territory on July 1. "These are events that the authorities do not want people in China to see," Hu added.    

A handful of Chinese Weibo users blamed the Hong Kong protestors for getting their Instagram service axed. But many Chinese appeared oblivious to the situation in Hong Kong, unsurprising given the current mainland news blackout on the escalating situation and the scrubbing of Weibo messages that mentioned Hong Kong. Weibo also was blocking searches for the keyword "Instagram," forcing users to resort to calling the service "Ins" in order to grouse about the shutdown.

Most mainland Chinese still likely know nothing of the Hong Kong protests, now continuing into the early hours of the morning. But online chatter about the Instagram blackout could backfire on Beijing, leading otherwise indifferent Chinese web users to feel the personal impact from events transpiring far away — and to begin asking why yet another popular online tool has, at least for now, been taken away.

Alexa Olesen has a master’s degree in contemporary Chinese literature from SOAS University of London and was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing for eight years. She is the director of research at China Six, a New York-based consulting firm. Twitter: @ael_o