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China Deploys Propaganda Machine to Defend Move Against Hong Kong

The New York Times logo The New York Times 6 days ago Javier C. Hernández

a group of people walking in front of a building: A screen in Beijing showed the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference on Thursday.

A screen in Beijing showed the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference on Thursday.
© Thomas Peter/Reuters

China’s propaganda machine went into full gear as the government sought to defend new laws aimed at limiting dissent and protest in Hong Kong.

In fiery editorials and scornful social media posts, the state-run news media portrayed the proposed laws — which would amount to the most forceful crackdown on Hong Kong since it returned to Chinese control in 1997 — as necessary to protect the rule of the Communist Party in Beijing. Commentators also lashed out at the United States, warning American officials, who have threatened punishment if the laws are enacted, to stay out of the matter.

Here is how the party is using the news media to defend its plans to strengthen control of Hong Kong.

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Beijing says the law is necessary to stop ‘extremist’ protesters trying to overthrow the government.

The Chinese government is reviving one of its favorite conspiracy theories to defend the new security law, saying that protesters in Hong Kong are extremists working with foreign countries to try to overthrow the government.

Calling Hong Kong a “weak link” in China’s national security, Xinhua, the official news agency, said on Friday that the new laws would save Hong Kong from the “terrorism” and “chaos” of protesters, who it said were colluding with foreign forces to “destroy the mainland.”

“Facts have shown that Hong Kong has become a ‘main card’ for external forces to hinder the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” said the commentary published by Xinhua.

There is no evidence that the protesters, who have flooded the streets of Hong Kong over the past year to demand greater civil liberties, are working with overseas groups. Many say they are motivated by China’s growing encroachment on Hong Kong’s status as a bastion of civil liberties with rights and institutions not granted on the mainland, like free speech and independent courts.

While the idea that stricter laws are necessary to stop extreme protesters has gained traction within China, experts say it is unlikely to resonate outside the country.

“The argument that the massive Hong Kong demonstrations were caused by international subversion is so implausible that it won’t persuade anyone outside of China,” said Susan Shirk, chair of the U.C. San Diego 21st Century China Center.

State media is taking aim at the United States.

Commentators in China were quick to criticize American officials for threatening to take countermeasures if the Chinese government pushed forward with the laws. President Trump warned on Thursday that the United States would react “very strongly” to the new national security laws.

Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of Global Times, a state-run newspaper known for its brash nationalism, said that China would not look kindly on retaliation by the United States. “Hong Kong belongs to China,” he wrote on Twitter, “not the U.S.”

An editorial by Global Times on Friday said China could withstand any efforts by the United States to retaliate, such as by denying preferential economic treatment to the territory. “As long as the U.S. dares to play its cards,” the editorial said, “China will play the game without hesitation.”

Nationalism is on full display across the Chinese news media, with some outlets publishing photos of people waving the Chinese flag in front of skyscrapers in Hong Kong.

China and the United States are already in a heated dispute over Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus, and the renewed crackdown in Hong Kong is likely to further inflame tensions between the two countries.

Vitriol against America is common in Chinese publications, with top party officials convinced that the United States and its allies are working to systematically stifle China’s rise as a superpower. With the Hong Kong issue, the attacks are likely to intensify.

“Many people in China have made up their minds already: They believe the relationship between China and the United States cannot get any worse,” said Yik Chan Chin, a lecturer in media and communication studies at the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. “This kind of discourse will become common now. They’re really not worried about what the president of America will say.”

News outlets are keeping the focus on Xi Jinping.

While the Hong Kong security laws are attracting wide attention outside China, the domestic news media in China is trying to keep the focus on Mr. Xi.

Mr. Xi is front and center as he takes part in China’s biggest political event of the year, the annual session of the National People’s Congress, where the Hong Kong laws are being introduced. He is using the congress to project strength at a time when criticism of China is growing on the global stage.

China Central Television, the state broadcaster, featured Mr. Xi’s vow to protect the health of Chinese citizens “at all costs” in fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

[Video: Watch on YouTube.]

While Mr. Xi did not address the Hong Kong crackdown, he has seized the moment to tout the strength of China’s authoritarian system. On Friday, Mr. Xi told delegates to the congress that “China’s socialist democracy is the broadest, most genuine and most effective democracy to safeguard the fundamental interests of the people,” according to Chinese news reports.

China is censoring alternative points of view about Hong Kong.

With the congress in full swing, the authorities are eager to avoid any disruptions. And China’s censorship apparatus is in overdrive.

Criticism of the party’s decision to move forward with the Hong Kong security laws was quickly deleted from social media sites on Friday. Chinese sites instead displayed bombastic editorials defending China’s handling of the unrest in Hong Kong.

“Don’t underestimate the central government’s determination to deal with the Hong Kong issue,” read a story published by China Central Television.

People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the party, published a video clip showing thunderous applause as the security laws were introduced inside the ornate Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Adding a suspenseful soundtrack for effect, the video proclaimed, “This shows the determination to maintain Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability!”

The government also tried to restrict coverage of the new security law by the foreign news media. The BBC on Friday aired a report about the introduction of the security laws at the congress. Every time it mentioned the legislation, screens in mainland China went black.

Albee Zhang and Claire Fu contributed research.

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