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HK demonstrations throw Beijing propaganda machine into overdrive

[BEIJING] Fearful of comparisons to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, Beijing has launched a dual effort to suppress news of swelling pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong while giving a heavy spin to what information it allows to get through, analysts say.

Scenes of the massive, yet peaceful, protests that have taken over the streets of the former British colony are being flashed around the world, where the reaction has been mostly supportive.

On the Chinese mainland, however, the story is being spun to match a different narrative - one in which the demonstrators are "violent", "extreme" and being manipulated by foreign forces.

A front-page story on the protests in Monday's Chinese-language edition of the Global Times tabloid showed not scenes of demonstrators being tear-gassed at close range, but rather rows of police officers trying to keep a surging crowd of protesters at bay.

And in what experts say is a record clampdown on social media, news has adhered strictly to the party line, with the ruling Communist Party's censors working to erase social media postings from protesters in Hong Kong or any criticism - at home and abroad - directed at Beijing.

"There's very little information aside from the official point of view that you can find that lasts very long," said Jeremy Goldkorn, the founder of Danwei, a Beijing-based firm that tracks Chinese media and Internet.

"That doesn't mean that people don't know what's going on, but the messaging is being controlled quite strictly," he added.

The photo-sharing app Instagram has been blocked in mainland China since Sunday night when the protests escalated.

That put the popular platform in the company of other foreign social media including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube already banned in the country's tightly controlled cyber space.

Fu King-wa, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre and founder of the censorship-tracking website Weiboscope, said that the number of posts deleted from the popular microblogging site Weibo by mainland censors since Saturday has hit a record high.

Prof Fu's website - which tracks a daily sample of 50,000 to 60,000 postings from popular microbloggers - found that 98 posts per 10,000 were blocked on Saturday, 152 on Sunday at the height of the Hong Kong clashes, and 136 on Monday.

"This is the highest in 2014 - even higher than June 4 (the Tiananmen Square anniversary), even higher than some of the trials of the human rights lawyers, and also higher than some of the other social movements in China," Prof Fu said, referring to the past year's civil society clampdown under President Xi Jinping.

The main driver behind Beijing's concern, Prof Fu said, is likely the flurry of comparisons between the current Hong Kong demonstrations and the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, during which hundreds - by some estimates, more than a thousand - people died after authorities sent tanks to crush demonstrations in the heart of Beijing.

"That triggers the nerves of the censors, of the government." In an editorial this week, the Global Times blasted such comparisons as "groundless" and argued that China "now has more feasible approaches to deal with varied disturbances".


In addition to targeting social media, Beijing also has recently added to a growing list of websites now blocked in the country, including the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, which has reported extensively on the protests.

Free speech advocates have voiced alarm over the recent clampdown, which the anti-censorship group said represents possibly the highest-ever volume of new website blocks in China.

"I imagine not since the launch of the Great Firewall itself have so many sites been added to the blocked list over such a short period of time," said a co-founder who goes by the pseudonym Charlie Smith, referring to China's Internet censorship regime.

Whether China is able to continue keeping a lid on the developments in Hong Kong largely depends on whether authorities use force to end the protests, analysts said.

"It would create a need to explain what happened - they're very good at that - but the international outrage and coverage if there were a violent end to these protests would be very difficult to contain." - AFP