Inside the Firewall: Unfiltered News of Hong Kong Trickles into China

SHANGHAI – Despite reports of record-high censorship on Chinese social media this week, many mainlanders are still able to access news coverage of the Hong Kong Occupy Central protests across a wide variety of platforms.

The wide-scale protests, which officially began September 28, led to one of the largest crackdowns on information-sharing platforms in both Hong Kong and mainland China, most notably the popular image-based app Instagram.

“I woke up one day and saw one of my classmates had posted a message about it on Instagram,” recounts Helen Song, a student at Shanghai International Studies University. “Then I tried it and found it was blocked.”

Instagram was blocked from mainland users the day after the Occupy Central protests began.

Instagram was blocked from mainland users the day after the Occupy Central protests began.

Habal K., who asked that his last name not be used, had also been using Instagram to glean information about the protests using keyword-grouped collections of photos, known as hashtags. “I used the hashtags to find out more about it, I saw the tear gas and all the police photos. It’s very interesting. But now, you can’t see anything at all.”

While the swift shutdown of Instagram weakened the stream of news to those inside China’s notorious firewall, many have turned to other social media platforms to access reports on the conflict.

“I searched it on the Internet but all I got were just some typical clichés from Xinhua news agency,” says Song. “So now we use VPN (virtual private networks) to look for more information. I read PhoenixNet as well.”

Habal says he used QQ, a Chinese instant-messaging software, to access news about the protests. “There are many posts about it in the blogging section,” he says, giving a demonstration of the app on his mobile phone. “Yes they can censor some of them, but there are too many and I’ve been able to read a little about it.”

Yoyo Huang, a tutor at an English language center, says she uses Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-style platform, when possible. Still, she complains that censorship is rife these days: “I will see something that mentions Hong Kong…. It’s gone quite soon after. More and more things are disappearing; it’s getting worse.”

Huang isn’t incorrect. Information gathered by social media watchdog groups demonstrate the recent spike in removed articles from Weibo, more than twice the amount recorded during other controversial news stories this year, such as the Tiananmen Square protests in Hong Kong on June 4.

Graph showing increased Weibo deletions since April 2014 (courtesy: weiboscope.com)

Graph showing increased Weibo deletions since April 2014 (source: weiboscope.com)

Still, interested readers on the mainland have options available to them, some hidden in plain sight.

Daniel Rechtschaffen, an American teacher who has lived in Shanghai for a year, says he notices no difference in Hong Kong coverage on mainstream English news websites like CNN or BBC. “There’s a ton of reporting being done, especially CNN. I’d say every other article on the CNN website is about the Occupy Central protests.”

Rechtschaffen says more attention is paid to Chinese-language forums, however. “If you compare [Chinese-language] WeiXin (WeChat) to [English-language] WhatsApp, they monitor the first way more. They want to know if similar homegrown protests are being organized over here.”

Regardless of how it is accessed, it’s evident that many mainland residents remain interested in the story of Hong Kong’s fight for democracy. With Occupy Central protests about to pass the one-week mark, this story is anything but old news for many in China.

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