The New York Times reports today that dozens of people have been arrested throughout mainland China for showing solidarity with the protests unfolding in Hong Kong. These included participants in a public demonstration in a park in Guangzhou as well as a number of people who posted material online, including those taking part in a viral “Going Bald for Hong Kong” campaign.
There’s a good chance that there wouldn’t even be large protests in China, even if everyone in the country were aware of what was happening, but Beijing isn’t taking any chances. The government’s online censorship apparatus has been kicked into overdrive. More than 10,000 posts were removed from Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social network, for using terms like “Hong Kong” and “umbrella.” The government has now blocked access to Instagram, the one major U.S.-based social networking service that was still available in the country. (Twitter and Facebook have been inaccessible for years now.) Yahoo also now appears to be under a sustained cyber-attack within China.
The official state media is almost entirely ignoring the story, reportedly under the instructions of the propaganda department. Nonetheless, information is seeping through the firewall, and as Christina Larson reports for Businessweek, mainlanders generally seem aware that something is going on in Hong Kong, even if the details are covered up. As with the events marking the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June, the large number of mainland visitors in Hong Kong at any given time makes it difficult to restrict the flow of information between the two populations.
Still, I would be surprised if there were more than a few isolated incidents in the mainland. As we saw during the abortive Arab Spring-inspired “jasmine revolution” events of 2011, the Chinese authorities have gotten extremely good at cracking down on potential protests with overwhelming force before they even start, let alone have the potential to develop into Tiananmen-style media events.
Hong Kong is a special case in more ways than one. There’s a hard-won culture of public protest there; the media, including online social networking, is for the most part unfettered; and foreign reporters are there in droves and unrestricted. If the authorities crack down too hard on the demonstrators or violate the territory’s sovereignty too egregiously, they risk spooking the multinational investors who call Hong Kong home. The best Beijing can do is probably let the protests go for a while and count on them running out of steam, or locals eventually getting fed up with the disruption.
On its own turf, as residents of Xinjiang can attest, the Chinese state shows few hesitations about employing overwhelming force against even hints of unrest. The Hong Kong situation is a test for the Chinese state’s system of control, but so far it seems likely to pass it.