Support for protesters in Hong Kong has come from an unexpected place: internet users in mainland China who are turning to encrypted chats to evade censorship and express a sympathy for the city’s demonstrators that is nowhere to be seen in Beijing’s official media.
In some cases, Chinese internet users are even discovering online chat groups to learn about, and defend, the pro-democracy movement by following the trail of pro-Beijing internet armies that have set out to smear the city’s protesters.
A number of those conversations are taking place on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app that grants users anonymity and has been the central tool used by Hong Kong protesters to communicate and organize demonstrations. In chats hidden from all but those who know where to look, Chinese internet users are openly siding with Hong Kong protesters, questioning the leadership of President Xi Jinping and lamenting the stiff societal controls of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Globe and Mail reviewed days of chats on several Telegram groups. They provided a glimpse into a much more robust debate inside China about Hong Kong than what is visible in state-controlled media, which has shed little light on the primary motivations of protesters.
“A lot of mainlanders don’t even know what the five main demands [of the Hong Kong protests] are – only that people in Hong Kong are wasted freeloaders,” said a Telegram user, a Chinese finance worker who declined to provide a name for fear of retribution. He supports “people voicing out their demands through peaceful protests,” and called the mainland voices spreading government-friendly messages “a shame for a civilization with such a long history.”
Those marching in Hong Kong have called for the full withdrawal of a proposed extradition bill; an independent investigation into police conduct; the reversal of a government characterization that protests were “riots”; the exoneration of those previously arrested; and the granting of greater democratic freedoms.
In China, however, news reports have paid scant attention to the protesters’ objectives – save to say that they seek independence, which many do not – but they have shown dramatic images of violent clashes with police, and labelled participants ultraradicals taking part in acts akin to terrorism.
As the protests have continued, Chinese social-media giants have maintained a vigilant censorship regime, purging any sentiment not in line with the official view and freezing accounts “suspected of spreading malicious rumours.” The Great Firewall, the digital ring fence that keeps out internet content authorities dislike, has been strengthened this summer to block a raft of additional foreign news sources, The Globe included.
And Chinese internet users have been marshalled to duck past the Great Firewall and post pro-Beijing comments on Western social media. Earlier this week, Facebook and Twitter closed a series of accounts involved in what Twitter called an attempt to “sow political discord in Hong Kong” by a “large, spammy network” that participated in a state-backed operation.
On Diba, a Chinese forum site popular with nationalists, users have formed “troll armies” to spread pro-Beijing messages on social media.
Telegram has been one of their targets.
But in taking aim at Telegram, nationalists have also pointed others to chat groups that have become a source of unfiltered information and unvarnished debate.
“When the Hong Kong protests began in early July, I found it understandable because they had reasonable demands,” said Andy Liu, a legal worker in mainland China. He criticized state media for “over-exaggerating the degree of violence and violent demonstration.”
Such a view is considered dangerous in Beijing, where authorities have acted to ward off the spread of protests on mainland soil.
But Mr. Liu is far from alone. The Globe’s review of chats on Telegram found most of them conducted in the simplified Chinese characters that are used in mainland China, but not Hong Kong. In one exchange, a person sympathetic to the protesters wrote: “If bad people are in charge of a country, then what will happen? I think 8964 is the best example,” a reference to the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989. A pro-Beijing commenter responded by suggesting protesters had dressed like police to beat others as a way to gain to support.
In a separate exchange, one person asked: “Can you tell me whether it’s reasonable to use tear gas on the street?” Another replied: “If you have the right to conclude that all bad things are done by people from the Communist Party of China, then why don’t I have the right to see all of these evil deeds as committed by local Hong Kong freeloaders?”
Some group chats have devolved into cursing and vicious name-calling, from both sides.
But there has also been an attempt by demonstrators in Hong Kong – and similar-minded people in Taiwan – to use Telegram and their shared Chinese language as a way to speak directly with critics in mainland China.
“With them coming across the Firewall, we are trying to respond and interact more. We hope to change them,” said Crystal Ting, a Hong Kong protester who has joined street rallies this summer, but has also devoted many hours to Telegram chats.
“We try to do it in a very intellectual way. Like we are not arguing or producing animosity,” she said. She tries to explain the history of Hong Kong and philosophical underpinnings of its thought. Sometimes, she said, her mainland interlocutors acknowledge that their access to information is incomplete and begin to question their assumptions.
At the same time, even those sympathetic to the Hong Kong protesters have taken a dim view of disruptive actions in recent weeks, including bloody clashes with police and closures of roads, tunnels and the airport.
The resulting images of unrest, amplified by the power of the Chinese state media apparatus, have led to the movement losing the “support of the masses,” Mr. Liu said. He also faulted protesters for expressing a hostility to people in the mainland that has made it “difficult for mainlanders to understand and sympathize with Hong Kong’s demands."
“I don’t think what’s happening in Hong Kong will have any tangible effect on the situation for democracy and freedom in mainland China,” he added.
Still, he’s grateful that he has found the Telegram groups.
“I can get different sources of information and values,” he said. “It’s very good, especially at a time like this.”
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