How Beijing wages its media assault on the credibility of the Hong Kong protesters

When protesters at the Hong Kong airport on Tuesday kicked and tied up a man they thought was acting suspiciously, they played right into the hands of the Chinese government they've spent weeks rallying against. China's campaign to discredit the pro-democracy demonstrators continues to intensify.

Violent episode at Hong Kong's airport this week highlights the stakes in the struggle to control the message

Protesters detain a man they suspected was a Chinese undercover agent during a demonstration at the Airport in Hong Kong on Tuesday. He was later identified as a reporter for a state-run Chinese outlet. (Vincent Yu/The Associated Press)

When protesters at the Hong Kong airport on Tuesday kicked and tied up a man they thought was acting suspiciously, they played right into the hands of the government they've spent weeks rallying against.

Chinese state-run news outlets promptly posted edited video of the attack, labelling the protesters as "rioters" who "tortured and humiliated" the man.

One outlet called the demonstrators "street thugs who want Hong Kong to 'go to hell.'"

While images of the demonstrations have transfixed the world, they've also become a key tool in an information war that continues to intensify.

The editor in chief of the state-run Global Times newspaper identified the man who was attacked as one of his web reporters, Fu Guohao, and tweeted that Fu "has no other task except for reporting."

Fu had reportedly refused to show identification as a journalist. Demonstrators had noticed him taking photos of individual protesters and suspected he was an undercover police officer.

By the time emergency crews removed him from the scene on a stretcher, video of the attack had provided Beijing with a potent addition to its arsenal in the online battle for support.

As Chinese authorities attempt to face down the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, Beijing needs a certain level of public support and justification, said Masato Kajimoto, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong who researches disinformation.

And Beijing is using trusted propaganda tactics to try to secure that support, he said. 

"Discrediting protesters and journalists, blaming the foreign forces, praising the Hong Kong police and the government."

While Beijing has been known to use the internet to push its narrative, the government's current Hong Kong campaign stands out for the sheer size of its online output, he said.

Experts consulted by CBC News say the government is using social media to try to reach two distinct groups with its message: overseas observers on sites such as Twitter, and mainland citizens using Chinese services such as Weibo and WeChat. (Twitter is blocked behind the so-called Great Firewall of China.)

Some of the most striking imagery this week purportedly showed Chinese security forces assembling in military-style vehicles near Hong Kong, in videos the Global Times said it had "obtained." A single tweet from the outlet was seen more than 400,000 times.

Chinese authorities don't want to create a negative image in the eyes of the international community, but they also don't want to create "an image of weakness in front of Chinese people," said Kecheng Fang, an assistant professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong's School of Journalism and Communication, in a telephone interview.

For Beijing, "it's a very delicate and difficult situation."

Though Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the region enjoys a level of independence that allows its citizens a greater degree of freedom of speech than in mainland China. But many in Hong Kong feel their independence is eroding.

The recent unrest in Hong Kong began as a series of protests against a now-suspended bill that would have allowed Hong Kong authorities to extradite suspected criminals to mainland China. The demonstrations have since expanded into a larger series of actions against what the protesters see as Hong Kong's pro-Beijing government.

Domestically, China initially censored any online discussions about the protest movement, Fang said. But Beijing later seized upon instances of violence as an opportunity to cast the protesters as "thugs," or more recently, "terrorists."

Protesters "are posing a severe challenge to law and order in Hong Kong," Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador to London, warned on Thursday.

Much of the pro-government messaging comes through state-controlled media channels such as the Global Times or CGTN television network and their respective social media accounts.

The state media's attitude toward calls for direct democracy in Hong Kong "range from unsympathetic to hostile," said Christopher Rea, associate head of the University of British Columbia's department of Asian studies.

But there are other pro-government voices online that can't be linked back to Beijing so easily.

A search on Thursday found 230 tweets posted during a 24-hour period containing the pro-government phrase "Hong Kong is a part of China forever." Many of the tweets came from new accounts with few, or no, followers — often a tell-tale sign of a bot account.

Some suspect accounts appear to be deployed specifically to sow debate over who's responsible for some particularly violent episodes.

One such incident occurred at the Hong Kong airport on Sunday when protesters accused police of shooting a woman in the eye with a beanbag round at close range.

Tweets blaming security forces for the woman's injury were often flooded with replies that questioned whether the police were involved at all.

"Actually it wasn't by police but one of the protesters," read a reply from an account with no followers.

"I don't think it had enough power to breakdown goggles," claimed another account.

Neither of those two accounts appear to have previously tweeted before this month.

Sanjay Ruparelia, Ryerson University's Jarislowsky Democracy Chair, said it's not surprising that Beijing is trying to misrepresent what is happening in Hong Kong, but it could backfire.

The "campaign of disinformation," he said, "is likely to make Hong Kongers even more passionate about protecting their civil liberties and distrustful of Beijing."


  • An earlier version of this story said the bill allowing Hong Kong to extradite suspected criminals to mainland China had been withdrawn. In fact, it has been suspended.
    Aug 16, 2019 6:28 AM ET


Thomas Daigle

Senior Reporter

Thomas is a reporter for a variety of CBC News programs, currently based in Toronto. Previously at CBC's London, U.K. bureau, he reported on everything from the Royal Family and European politics to terrorism. Thomas filed stories from Quebec for several years and reported for Radio-Canada in his native New Brunswick.

With files from CBC’s Tiffany Foxcroft