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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Yaqiu Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the terrorism framing was “extremely concerning.”
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.
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.”
This story has been updated.
CNN’s Steven Jiang contributed reporting from Beijing.