China's Internet firewall censors Hong Kong protest news

Story highlights

  • China's news and social media are stripped of discussions on Hong Kong protests
  • China fears discussion of political rights, dissent and civil disobedience, observers say
  • Instagram has been blocked since Sunday when protests heated up
News articles, social media posts and images about Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests are being heavily censored behind China notorious firewall.
Chinese state-run news outlets have largely ignored the pro-democracy protests except for the same Xinhua story in which the Hong Kong chief executive CY Leung denounced the demonstrations as "unlawful."
In Hong Kong, residents have poured into the streets to defy Beijing's vision for its political future in the midst of its longest series of political protests since the 1997 handover. Their goal is to pressure China into giving the former British colony full universal suffrage. Dozens have been reported injured by authorities.
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On the social media front, Instagram has been blocked in China since Sunday. Users cannot view images and a message reads on the site: "Can't refresh feed."
China observers noted that while the app can't be accessed in China for most, the country's First Lady Peng Liyuan's official Instagram account posted a picture of her and her husband, China's President Xi Jinping, on Monday.
The photo app has been viewed as a relatively non-political social media platform, said King-wa Fu, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong.
"In the past two days, we can see a lot of people holding phones and taking pictures of different (Hong Kong protest) scenes on Instagram, Facebook and sharing it around," he said. "It's a huge amount of pictures posted in a short period of time."
That may have led to the blocking of the photo-sharing app, Fu said.
The Chinese government maintains strict controls over what can be seen on the Internet and social media. This firewall extends to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and Google is rarely accessible. Hong Kong does not fall under the same restrictions.
China's massively popular microblogging site, Sina Weibo is being censored at the highest rate this year with "Hong Kong" as the most commonly deleted term, according to Weiboscope, a Hong Kong University effort that monitors deleted posts. About 152 out of 10,000 Weibo posts were blocked, said Fu, who also works on Weiboscope.
Why China censors Hong Kong demonstrations
Photos of police confronting young pro-democracy protesters are sensitive in China, because it's a reminder of Tiananamen Square, in which Chinese authorities cracked down on student protesters on June 4, 1989, Fu said.
"If you look at the political agenda of protests in Hong Kong, they have the same objectives. They're calling for democracy in Hong Kong and political reform. These are two main sensitive topics in China. This is the topic they don't want the Chinese citizens to widely discuss," he said.
But China cannot completely black out any knowledge of the Hong Kong protests, especially with 40 million mainland arrivals to the special administrative region every year.
Chinese authorities cannot control whether its citizens know about pro-democracy Hong Kong protests, but they can shut down "autonomous communication space" where public discussions can take place in China, said Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor for the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.
"That's what they're trying to repress," he said.
"The Chinese government fears that the kinds of protest and exercise of rights demanding greater political freedom will be contagious and trigger something in China," he said. "That's what they fear the most."
What you can see in China
The protest intensified Sunday when Hong Kong police unleashed tear gas on demonstrators. But there was no mention of it on the evening Chinese state-run CCTV news.
On Monday morning, the homepage of China's major portals such as Sina, Sohu, 163 and China's state-run news agency Xinhua did not mention the events either.
Searches on China's top search engine sites such as Baidu and Sogou for the terms "Hong Kong protest" or even "Hong Kong students" yielded irrelevant results such as stories showing a a blissful image of Hong Kong residents picnicking on the grass or how Hong Kong is welcoming tourists from the mainland during the national holiday week.
When relevant results appeared on the Chinese search engines, the articles contained a distinctively pro-China slant and even surfaced a month-old article about a small pro-Beijing counter-protest in Hong Kong.
Content that was more sympathetic to Hong Kong protesters had been removed with messages reading: "In accordance with relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results could not be displayed."