In the tightly-censored bubble of state-run media and restricted internet, Beijing locals enjoyed their October 1 National Day seemingly unaware that in Hong Kong, which is Chinese territory, police and protesters were fighting in the streets.
People did take to Beijing’s streets later in the evening – but it was only to get a better view of the massive fireworks display over Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, part of the celebrations to mark 70 years of the People’s Republic of China.
It was a stark contrast that made headlines around the world – the order and pomp of Beijing versus the rage of Hong Kong’s demonstrators, with one protester even shot by police in a confrontation. It was the first time lethal force had been used in 17 weeks of demonstrations.
Of course, inside China it is immensely difficult to truly gauge how much people know about events, and what their true feelings are. Saying the wrong thing can quickly get you in trouble with authorities.
But on televisions and phones across Beijing, between shots of tanks and dancers, President Xi Jinping’s beaming face was the most common sight. The Chinese government had ratcheted up censorship ahead of the 70th anniversary – for Xi, nothing could be allowed to go wrong.
In Beijing on October 1, rather than screen footage of the scenes in Hong Kong, state-run media played shows and panel discussions praising the achievements of the Chinese government, or replayed footage of the morning’s military parade. When CNN broadcast news of the protests inside the country, screens went black as censors cut off the feed.
Patriotism and pride
On the country’s social media sites, such as the Twitter-like Weibo, messages were full of patriotism and pride. Commentary around the morning’s military parade was either blandly positive or strictly apolitical.
All comments on Hong Kong were heavily filtered to give the impression of a city celebrating the 70th anniversary along with the rest of the country. The top five trending terms about the city on Tuesday were stories of patriotic Hong Kongers unfurling the Chinese flag on the iconic Lion Rock mountain, or groups gathering in the streets to celebrate the anniversary.
To an outside observer, the propaganda and censorship might seem like only a means to an end, a way to ensure that the parade went as smoothly as possible and the image of China as a united and powerful country was maintained for the outside world. But that ignores the political significance of the parade itself. For President Xi and the Chinese government, the majesty of the march through Beijing on Tuesday was aimed squarely at the country’s almost 1.4 billion people.
The viewing figures alone are staggering. An estimated 1.2 billion people watched the state-run CCTV coverage, according to the government, a figure almost equal to the entire population.
The message was one of the stability and might: you are part of a powerful nation which is just beginning to set foot on the world stage. China has changed a lot in the past 70 years and many people are proud of their country’s achievements – and with good reason. In just a matter of decades, their nation has gone from an impoverished backwater to one of the wealthiest in the world.
Domestic touches that would mean nothing to international observers were designed to pull in as many Chinese individuals as possible. Each province was represented by a lavish float, which drove down the center of Beijing’s Chang’an avenue.
At night, each of China’s official 56 minority groups was represented in the gala performance, taking turns to dance, faces full of happy smiles.
On the ground, it’s impossible to tell how much of an effect the blatantly positive messaging has. Hong Kang, 23, an advertising worker from the eastern city of Hangzhou, said the unrest in Hong Kong was “useless.”
When told someone had been shot on Tuesday, he wasn’t surprised. “There won’t be any good outcome for you if you fight with the great China,” he added.