If it’s any consolation, Mainland China seems to be plummeting into Xi-style totalitarianism at a faster rate than Hong Kong is plodding towards the Communist-tinted Singaporean authoritarianism the Liaison Office seems to have in mind for us. Like distant galaxies, the two are growing farther apart even if they are heading in the same direction.
In Beijing’s latest desperate attempt to control the Internet, the Ministry of Public Security is to embed police in big tech companies. Actual cops will have office space in firms like Alibaba and Tencent. Maybe they will just sit in their uniforms, munching donuts (well, dumplings), glowering at employees who look guilty of thought crimes in their cubicles. Or perhaps they will log onto Weibo and join the monitors, wumao and informants who must by now be clogging up half the bandwidth in the country.
While the Great Patriotic Paranoid Firewall seems primarily designed to delete undesirable material and promote the official line, it also “isolates [Chinese] from citizens elsewhere in the world.” Could this insulation from the rest of the planet, at a time when global digital communities are forming elsewhere, have bigger effects than the plain censorship and propaganda? Could China end up with ‘socialization’ issues – a nation-state version of the homeschooled kid forbidden contact with his peers’ music, TV and social media?
Although there is obviously a lot of clustering by language, culture and age-group, some fairly broad strands of humanity share information, ideas, experiences and memes digitally as a matter of course. Millions of people around the world right now are following the same footage and chatter about the Boeing 777 bits washed ashore in Reunion, or viewing the same photos and eye-witness accounts marking the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima. Less than a year ago, we were looking at YouTube clips and photos on Twitter in which teens in Ferguson, Missouri were holding up signs of support for Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. At other times, half the planet seems to be debating the colour of that dress, or obsessing over the latest cat video. But Mainlanders don’t get to join in the party, as if they’re locked up in another room.
Similarly, the rest of the world must miss some of what’s happening in China. Mainland censorship would ensure this in many cases, but even when the state permits or orchestrates or just mishandles an online viral happening, people overseas will at best see it later and probably filtered in some way. In China, people don’t use Twitter, YouTube or Instagram (or anything), so the rest of us might not get to share the fun or frivolities or anger taking place online over the border. The classic example is last year’s rail station terrorist attack in Kunming: Mainlanders can be quite bitter at the way foreigners don’t share their outrage over what they see as China’s 9/11 – but people overseas didn’t experience it as they would have done if it had taken place in most other countries.
So we can declare the weekend open with the semi-optimistic thought that wherever Hong Kong is heading, the Mainland will be light years worse. It’s enough to stiffen spines at the South China Morning Post, which dares to carry an op-ed piece by Anson Chan, former Chief Secretary and latter-day pro-democrat loathed by Beijing and its followers. She decries HKU’s Johannes-Gate, offering gratuitous assurances that she does not approve of, condone, etc the students’ rowdiness, stubbornly refusing to openly accuse the Communist tyrants in the Liaison Office of subverting Hong Kong, and seeing dangers to educational institutions rather than the city’s whole well-being – but it’s a surprise to see it there at all.
This just in: now they’ve come for the ‘various videos of questionable taste’.