“MELBOURNE, Australia — As the police deploy tear gas against protesters on the streets of Hong Kong, another battle is raging less visibly: the one for narrative control. After weeks of asserting that the unrest had been orchestrated by foreign “black hands,” Chinese officials on Monday accused protesters of showing the first signs of “terrorism.” Such messaging is key to Beijing’s public opinion operation, which has been turned up to full volume.
The weapons of this information war include a flood of social media posts from state-run media, some carrying misinformation. When a woman dispensing first aid was shot in the eye by the Hong Kong police, the state-run CCTV reported on its official social media account that she had been shot by protesters. It also accused her of handing out money to demonstrators. Chinese readers are unlikely to question the veracity of such an authoritative source, and CCTV’s Weibo post, which says the movement is slandering the Hong Kong police by blaming them for the injury, has been liked more than 700,000 times.
Ten weeks ago, when Hong Kongers first took to the streets to protest disputed extradition legislation, Beijing censored all reports of this civil unrest. But in recent days, it has reveled in posting video of protesters purportedly using air guns, slingshots and petrol bombs against the police. The state-run Global Times has described protesters as “nothing more than street thugs who want Hong Kong to ‘go to hell,’” or as people who had “voluntarily stripped themselves of their national identity.” Such descriptions are aimed at delegitimizing the protesters’ cause, especially among educated mainlanders who might otherwise be sympathetic.
Chinese people living or studying overseas are another important audience for Beijing’s messaging. Their primary news diet is largely delivered via WeChat, a Chinese chat app where messages are subject to censorship, so they often still fall within Beijing’s propaganda orbit. Recent pictures of an American diplomat meeting two activists, Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, were used to bolster Beijing’s claims of hostile foreign forces backing the protests. On Tuesday, scenes of a Chinese state media worker being tied up at the airport and beaten by young protesters flooded Chinese social media, bolstering calls for Beijing to intervene militarily in Hong Kong.”
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