Tea Leaf Nation
In China, the Most Censored Day of the Year
Mainland censors scrubbing news of Hong Kong protests were busier yesterday than they were on the anniversary of Tiananmen.
Censors on Weibo, China’s massive Twitter-like microblogging platform, just had their biggest day of the year. And once again, it was events in the special administrative region of Hong Kong, not the Chinese mainland, that triggered it.
Student-led demonstrations in downtown Hong Kong began on Sept. 26, protesting against what organizers believe is increased encroachment by Beijing in Hong Kong politics, despite a promise to maintain separate systems of governance. On Sept. 28, police attempted to disperse protesters with tear gas, pepper spray, and batons, shocking the traditionally peaceful port city unused to displays of police violence. While protester ranks swelled as Hong Kong residents joined the demonstrations, China’s small army of online censors burst into action in China’s digital public square, quickly deleting related photos and comments posted to Weibo, a Chinese social platform with 46 million daily active users. Weibo censorship hit its highest point this year at 152 censored posts per 10,000, according to Weiboscope, an analytics project run by the University of Hong Kong. ("Hong Kong" and "police" were the day’s top censored terms.) To put that in perspective, the Sept. 28 censorship rate was more than double that on June 4, the 25th anniversary of the crackdown on the Tiananmen student movement — an event so meticulously censored in both traditional and social media that many of China’s younger generation are largely ignorant of the event.
In recent months, Hong Kong has become increasingly unsettled over the question of universal suffrage, which Beijing has avowed it will allow only if candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive, the top government position there, are chosen by a committee stacked with pro-Beijing interests, rather than selected by open nomination. Activist groups such as Occupy Central, a pro-democracy civil disobedience movement, and Scholarism, a student-led group that has organized a Hong Kong-wide class boycott, have formed to push back against what they perceive as Beijing’s gradual encroachment upon Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Authorities in Beijing clearly fear that demands for democratic reform in Hong Kong may spread to the mainland, and censorship activity, ordered by the state, bears this out. Despite 2014’s many politically sensitive and potentially destabilizing events — including a March 1 terrorist attack at a busy train station, the July 29 announcement of an investigation into former security watchdog Zhou Yongkang, and the Sept. 23 sentencing of prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti on charges of separatism — the three most censored days on Weibo nevertheless all related to Hong Kong. Beijing’s official rejection on August 31 of open nomination of candidates in Hong Kong came in second, while the annual July 1 pro-democracy march in Hong Kong took third.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr