Ongoing Hong Kong protests polarize public opinion

October 22, 2019

By Yilin Wang

WASHINGTON D.C. – Violence and destruction are spreading rampantly through Hong Kong (HK) amid the anti-government protests, which started in June as a peaceful demonstration against the Extradition Law Amendment Bill, but soon took a violent turn. Now, antagonism between the two opposing sides in the protests continues to intensify. Democracy-seeking protestors who have been wary of Beijing’s growing influence in Hong Kong are determined to rebuild a free homeland at whatever cost. Those in favor of the government strongly criticize the protestors for causing damage and social disorder in HK; many from mainland China also condemn the protestors for their attempt to break up the country.

The clash between extreme opposing camps in the protest was evident in the recent fallout between China and the National Basketball Association (NBA). On October 4, Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey posted a now-deleted tweet that showed his support for the anti-government protests in HK. This message was met with extremely strong reactions in China, as the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV stopped streaming NBA games and many Chinese sponsors severed their ties with NBA shortly after the tweet. Later, when famous basketball player LeBron James was asked to comment on Morey’s tweet, he said, “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and what we say and what we do. Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, it can be a lot of negative that comes with it.” This time, it was the anti-government group in Hong Kong that was infuriated, as protestors gathered in HK to voice opposition to James’s statement, trampled and burned down jerseys bearing his name.

The SAIS Observer spoke about the protests to a SAIS alumnus currently based in Hong Kong, who said, “The biggest struggle is, what started as issues within only [the Hong Kong] governance realm all of a sudden dragged China in, and now should one agree even only partially on either the protesters’ side or the other side (police, government, mainland China), he or she will have no space in between and the best that can be done is to remain silent. So, in general, as long as the whole movement is labeled or understood as a single package, there will be nothing but division, and victory for either side is a loss for the city.”

It is likely that the disparate media coverage on the protests contributed partially to the formation of diverging attitudes among audiences. Most Western media have painted a picture of intrepid and democracy-aspiring youth in Hong Kong fighting for the future of their homeland, only to be repressed violently by the police force. In most Chinese media, the image of young protestors is neither idealistic nor democracy-aspiring; instead, the group is labeled as “the broken youth” (废青), usually poor and aimless, taking pleasure in exacting revenge on society. The Hong Kong-based SAIS alumnus said, “I think perception really is formed according to one’s best interest, as there will be no benefit to critical thinking in such times, contrary to what we are taught in schools or other places. Trying not to be misleading, I’ll just share my [opinion], which resembles that of a few friends of mine from both the West and from mainland China. Our perception is a mixed feeling. On one hand, we did condemn the violence and damage, but, on the other hand, we see reports and quite compelling motivation for undercover police on [causing] some of the damage. We also [are concerned about] the lack of [accountability] which showcases the lack of integrity in the police force, but we understand an investigation is unrealistic.”

In Western social media as well as online media platforms, video clips of Hong Kong police brutality are widely circulated, in which the police pinned the protestors down and used batons, pepper spray and tear gas on them. Meanwhile, a quick search with the keywords “violence in HK protest” on WeChat (the most popular social media channel in China) or Chinese media’s YouTube channels would generate hundreds of articles, pictures and videos showing the protestors smashing public property, beating innocent civilians and journalists, and hurling bricks and gasoline bombs that caused massive street fire and severely injured policemen.

Professor Ho-Fung Hung, a leading expert on HK-related issues who also teaches at SAIS, commented that, “The bottom line is, media coverage is generally based on verified facts. Comparatively, coverage of the protest in English media from China is more uneven in its reliability and accuracy. For example, there are reports that protesters were planning a 9-11 style terrorist attack, and there are reports that male protesters got free sex from 14 years old teenage girl as reward. They are based on pure speculation or unverified rumors, and they don’t stand up to the rigorous standard of serious journalism. Some other English media from China are doing a good job though, like the South China Morning Post, now owned by Jack Ma. It has been giving fact-based coverage presenting different views on the protest over the last few months.”