Beijing says Hong Kong protests 'show signs of terrorism.' If you only watch state media, you probably agree
Hong Kong (CNN) Out-of-control mobs beating up police. Crazed separatists throwing petrol bombs and vandalizing government buildings. The symbols of the country insulted and humiliated. Local authorities overwhelmed and in need of assistance.
This is the picture consumers of Chinese state media have been receiving of the Hong Kong protests, now approaching their 11th consecutive weekend. While there is some truth to it -- there have been numerous incidents of violence, and protesters have targeted Chinese flags and government buildings -- it remains a highly selective and incomplete take.
Crucially, it appears to distort the reasons behind the unrest. Protests were initially sparked by opposition to a now-shelved extradition bill, but have since expanded to include demands for an investigation into police brutality and long-running calls for greater democracy and political reform.
It also ignores the many peaceful marches and the reciprocal, seemingly self-perpetuating cycle of violence, with both protesters and police deploying increasingly forceful tactics.
While many Hong Kongers are concerned about the escalating violence, and many have been inconvenienced by transport shutdowns and other travel disruptions, there is little sense of danger in the city beyond the protest front lines, and it is certainly far from the war zone often depicted in Chinese state media.
The presentation of the protests in mainland China -- where propaganda combines with the vast online censorship apparatus of the Great Firewall to allow the government to construct a narrative of its choosing -- has evolved significantly over the past two months.
Initially, almost all mention of the protests was censored, as is usual for anti-government action anywhere in China. Stories that did appear played up local support for the now-shelved extradition law, and framed opposition to it as a minority.
As the movement evolved, however, so too did Chinese state media coverage.
Violent clashes between police and protesters, beginning on June 12 when crowds effectively shut down the city's legislature and police cleared them with heavy force, were given sudden prominence and distributed widely.
A one one-sided narrative was constructed in which protesters, now labeled "violent mobs," were solely responsible for the escalating conflict. This was soon joined by allegations -- including from senior Chinese officials -- that Washington and other foreign governments were "meddling" in the protests and using them as a vehicle to attack China.
As the protests continued, violent mobs became "criminals" and "separatists," pursuing not greater democracy or an investigation into police violence, as they have demanded publicly, but Hong Kong independence.
On Monday, this gradual rhetorical escalation reached a new stage, with Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, China's top body in charge of affairs in the city, saying the protests showed "signs of terrorism."
"Hong Kong's radical demonstrators have repeatedly attacked police officers with extremely dangerous tools," he said. "They have already constituted serious violent crimes and have begun to show signs of terrorism. This is a gross violation of the rule of law and social order in Hong Kong, which is endangering the lives and safety for Hong Kong citizens."
On the same day, amid images of chaos coming out of Hong Kong's paralyzed international airport, Chinese state media broadcast images of the People's Armed Police (PAP) conducting drills in the neighboring mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen, in an apparent message to a domestic audience that the force stood poised to assist in crushed the protests. Some videos included subtitles highlighting relevant Chinese law that the PAP, which is under the direct control of the Central Military Commission headed by President Xi Jinping, can be used to "handle riots, unrest, severe violent criminal activities, terrorist attacks and other public safety incidents."
Lev Nachman, an expert in social movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan at the University of California, Irvine, said that while Yang's use of the caveat "signs of terrorism," rather than outright saying protesters were terrorists, was something of a silver lining, it suggested "harsh repression by the regime is now no longer off the table, especially if protests continue."
"Evoking terrorism is rhetorical groundwork for escalation, it gives the Communist Party room to continue down this loaded line of 'terrorism' discourse that has the potential to justify whatever violence they deem necessary to stop whatever the 'terrorist' threat is," he said. "It almost feels like a threat from Yang Guang to the protesters that they are approaching a level of disruption that the (Party) no longer finds acceptable."
Under Hong Kong's de facto constitution, the government can request the assistance of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) garrison in the city for the "maintenance of public order." However, experts agree that the deployment of the military to the streets of Hong Kong could massively backfire on the government, leading to comparisons to the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 and potentially crashing the economy.
For its part, the Hong Kong government seemed to downplay China's descriptions of the protests, with Senior Superintendent Steve Li saying "based on the current situation, we will handle it as violent protest."
Previously, local officials have also distanced themselves from Chinese propaganda about foreign forces controlling the protests. A senior Hong Kong government official told CNN they had "no evidence" of overseas interference, and pointed to local concerns as the chief driver of the protests.
Chinese state media, on the other hand, took the terrorism line and ran with it. State broadcaster CCTV accused protesters of attempting to murder police and said the unrest "obviously has the color of terrorism" which required the government to "resolutely crack down."
Official news agency Xinhua played up comments by an official in Hong Kong that the city risked sliding "into a bottomless abyss if the terror atrocities are allowed to continue," while an editorial in the nationalist tabloid Global Times said "raging mobs" must be "receiving support through nefarious political gain or financial stimulation" and were "without any doubt, similar to terrorists."
Yaqiu Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the terrorism framing was "extremely concerning."
She pointed to the use of "vaguely and broadly defined 'terrorism' charges" to justify widespread repression in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China with a large Muslim minority. Beijing has been accused of running a huge network of detention camps in Xinjiang, with potentially millions of mostly Uyghur Muslims being processed for "re-education."
Uyghurs have been the chief target of the "terrorist" designation in China, part of a general othering of the non-ethnically Chinese minority which has gone hand in hand with greater repression in the region. Suggesting that Hong Kongers, almost all of whom are Han Chinese, are also terrorists would be a major shift in how Beijing views the city and its relationship to the Chinese metropole.
The World Uyghur Congress, a Germany-based NGO highly critical of China, also said it was "tremendously concerning" that the government was using the term terrorism with regard to Hong Kong.
However, Wang noted that "the contexts of Hong Kong and Xinjiang are vastly different, to launch a 'Xinjiang-style' crackdown in Hong Kong would be hard to do and very costly to Beijing, for reasons such as Hong Kong is a major financial center in Asia and the residents are very digitally connected."
"The extraordinary activism demonstrated by Hong Kong people in the past three months has shown their resolve and competence in defending their freedoms and rights," she said. "Beijing should take note of that."