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Published on October 20th, 2014 | by EJC

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Can China’s Social Media Censorship Keep The Lid On Hong Kong Protests?

This article was written by Emma Woollacott and originally published by Forbes on 29 September, 2014. Republished with permission.

China is ramping up its internet censorship program, as pro-democracy protests sweep Hong Kong. It’s blocked Instagram for the first time, and is censoring results on the country’s largest search engine, Baidu, more than ever before.

Demonstrators in the former British territory are calling for free elections, rather than being forced to pick from an approved list of candidates. But the protests are being pitched by the government as counter to mainstream public opinion, and the actions of a small number of extremists – and this spin appears to be working.

Until now, Facebook-owned Instagram has managed to stay on the right side of the censors, having been seen as relatively harmless. Now, though, the thousands of photos of police using tear gas on peaceful protesters have apparently been too much for the government to take. While it’s still possible for Hong Kong users to post to the site, images are blocked in China and only viewable abroad. A message simply reads: “Can’t refresh feed.”

Central to the block is the rallying cry “Occupy Central”, which has been used as a tag on Instagram and was also blocked as a search term on Weibo yesterday. Indeed, according to Weiboscope, a censorship monitoring project at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, the number of censored posts on Weibo rocketed five-fold over the weekend, so that over 150 per 10,000 posts are currently being deleted. “Hong Kong” is now the most widely-deleted search term on the site. It’s still possible to search for terms such as “Hong Kong protest” – indeed, stats indicate that such searches are some of the most popular in the country – it’s just that only pro-government results will be returned.

As usual, the Chinese are finding ways round the social media bans, most notably through the use of FireChat, an app that uses Bluetooth connections to allow users to connect to each other directly over short distances. It’s put on more than 100,000 users in the last 24 hours, with protesters using it to coordinate their actions. Unfortunately, though, it has little take-up in the rest of the country.

Meanwhile, and unsurprisingly, the mainstream Chinese press is toeing the party line, again keeping the mainland in the dark. More controversially, even the Wall Street Journal and Reuters have been accused of censoring their reports. Greatfire.org calls out both publications for failing to report on the protests in their local editions, while running stories as headline items in their US versions. The WSJ has strenuously denied the accusation.

As a result of the increase in censorship, many mainland Chinese people are apparently unaware of the protests in Hong Kong. One Chinese newspaper has even run a photo of the demonstration with a caption suggesting it was a show of support for the electoral rules. Instead of sympathy, there’s a rising tide of nationalism, centered around the country’s 65th National Day on Wednesday. “Selfies with the Chinese flag” is a top trending topic on Weibo.

China frequently tightens up its censorship when political tensions rise, most recently during the 25th anniversary of the Tianmen Square uprising in June. It usually succeeds in quelling discussion. “Opposition groups know well it’s impossible to alter the decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Hong Kong’s political reform plan,” asserts an editorial in the Communist party publication Global Times today. Unfortunately, that seems to be true, even when protest is widespread. In this case, where the cause of discontent is irrelevant to most of the population, that’s likely to be all the more true. We’re unlikely to see a Chinese Spring any time soon.

About the Author:

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 Emma Woollacott covers the control of content on the internet. She’s been writing about technology for most of her adult life, focusing mainly on legal and regulatory issues. She writes for a wide range of publications: credits include the Times, Daily Telegraph and Financial Times newspapers, as well as BBC radio and numerous technology titles.

Photo: ansel.ma

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