Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Ren Yi
by Ren Yi

Mainland Chinese who oppose Hong Kong’s protests aren’t brainwashed by censorship, despite what the West might think

  • Many in the West and Hong Kong mistakenly believe that mainland Chinese are unthinking and uncritical. On the contrary, one consequence of life behind China’s Great Firewall is a hypersensitivity to the veracity of information
Ren Yi
“You have been brainwashed since young.” This is the most frequently heard accusation against someone born and raised in mainland China. Of late, especially, it is targeted at those who oppose the protests in Hong Kong that had been triggered by a now-withdrawn extradition bill. 
People in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States and elsewhere who support the months-long anti-government protests are outraged that many mainland Chinese took issue with the protests.
They believe China’s “Great Firewall” – its system of online censorship – effectively filters every piece of information deemed detrimental to the ruling regime, thus depriving mainland Chinese of any ability to form a “correct” judgment about the so-called pro-democracy protests (which, incidentally, many mainland Chinese now see as a nativist movement driven by a group of radicalised youth with extremist views and a willingness to use violent means to achieve their aims).

Because of this Great Firewall, mainland Chinese are perceived as victims of an absolute information blockade who have no choice but to passively accept the government’s propaganda.

Thus, those who stand with the Chinese government in a boycott of the NBA, following Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s controversial tweet, must have been brainwashed and manipulated by the Communist government; they are no better than cyber bots and cannot be autonomous agents.

But such perceptions are a far cry from reality. Many mainland Chinese strongly object to such a stereotype, for good reason.

First, mainland Chinese in fact have access to tons of information and news daily about China. The sources include state and non-official media, social media platforms, private chat rooms and other online channels.

Take English-language media: although a number of platforms are blocked, the overwhelming majority of foreign media websites are not, including mainstream US media such as CNN, CNBC, National Public Radio, CBS and Fox News. Information on the more extreme ends of the political spectrum are also widely accessible within the Great Firewall.

The biggest barrier to foreign news access is actually not censorship, but an ability to read English – a problem increasingly remedied today by online translation tools.

Why would they accuse CNN or Fox of being ‘fake news’, but automatically subscribe to what these media have to say about Hong Kong?

Second, Chinese people are hyperconscious of the fact that the government dominates and controls information input and inflow, hence they do not easily accept whatever the government says. This is true for most educated people, who have developed a habit of reading between the official lines and checking it against other sources for a truer picture.

This is not how the West normally thinks of China. In its imagination, every individual living inside the Great Firewall is presumed to have lost the ability to think independently and critically, given their chronic exposure to government-dominated information channels.

The truth is, people who live in a somewhat sophisticated authoritarian society, like China or the Soviet Union of the recent past, are more likely to have developed a cognitive condition better understood as cynicism – a proclivity for denial, rejection, doubt and non-belief, unless such information is checked and somehow verifiable. This actually makes them much more suspicious to one-way information, especially when it’s backed by the government.

Third, websites blocked by the censors can still be accessed. As Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin observed in a recent Hong Kong interview, many Chinese regularly get around the Great Firewall for work purposes. All expats living in China do it.

In a nutshell, the Great Firewall is not an absolute barrier for mainland Chinese to reach the outside world. It is entirely up to a person’s own willingness and effort to seek the truth. Mainland Chinese believe that truths and untruths exist both within and beyond the firewall, and the act of crossing the wall in itself does not guarantee truth.

While mainland Chinese are living with a known (yet non-absolute) barrier of information, which elevates their consciousness of blind spots, people in the West are living behind an invisible wall that unknowingly shapes their biased view on China.

Liberal democracy was established before the emergence of a postmodern information society where both traditional and new media seek to actively sway, shape and condition people’s learning and leaning. All media, whether liberal, conservative, libertarian or alt-right and alt-left, feed their audiences with their version of the truth, a mixture of selective reporting and subtle interpretation.

The use of the same quote might lead to completely different conclusions. Profit-driven media tend to amplify people’s existing opinions, which lead to the creation of echo chambers that polarise and divide society. The foundations of a functional liberal democracy will be undermined in such a “post-consensus” society.

Take the example of the Hong Kong protests. Do people in the West genuinely believe they possess a fair and balanced picture on the ground?

All mainstream media label the protests “pro-democracy”, but do they report on the protesters’ exercise of hate speech, use of racial slurs, non-discriminating assaults on mainland Chinese and pro-Beijing Hong Kong properties, violent destruction of public infrastructure, vicious threats against family member of police officers, and terrorising tactics such as online bullying and street fights to silence whoever dares to have different political views?

Their acts are ultimately anti-democracy, anti-liberty, anti-human rights and a shame on any modern society.

The teens firing up the increasingly violent Hong Kong protest movement

Why would they accuse CNN or Fox of being “fake news”, but automatically subscribe to what these media have to say about Hong Kong?

People living in Hong Kong, a city that sits right next to the Chinese mainland, have misperceptions about the Great Firewall. They proudly and thoroughly believe in Western media, and they believe that any information from behind the wall cannot be true, and that news agencies which are outside the wall but pro-Beijing cannot be trusted.

They believe that any information which comes from outside the wall is a sufficient reason for the information to be true. Such thinking is reflected not only in Hongkongers’ prejudices against mainland China, but also their naivety about the contemporary West.

The Great Firewall can be said to be a form of information protectionism. While it does restrict information exchange, it has also unwittingly created a “Galapagos Island of information”, separating China from the outside world. This is a major factor that stops Beijing from actively engaging with the world.

Ren Yi, a graduate from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is an influential Chinese blogger who has over a million followers on Weibo. This article was translated from Chinese