Protests in Hong Kong: Media’s Portrayal Versus Firsthand Experience

Police fires tear gas at protestors in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

Thinking of Hong Kong, I imagined a city ignited in flames and tear gas. With media reporting news of violent confrontation and flaring tension, visiting the region seemed daunting and unsafe. Little did I know, the place portrayed as “violent and chaotic” would surprise me in the best way possible.

The infamous protests began in June in light of the extradition bill controversy. Sparked by activist gatherings, the anti-government demonstrations were aimed at withdrawing the newly introduced bill. With rising tension and mass dissatisfaction, the protests transformed into clashes between the activists and the police.

Gaining recognition and mass media attention, both local and foreign, the demonstrations grew in scale and ferocity. While the bill withdrawal was adopted in response to the rising tension, activists adopted additional demands such as protester amnesty.

Media’s Portrayal of Hong Kong

Commencing as a local scale protest, the Hong Kong movement swept countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Gaining global support, the rallies also gained major media attention.

Reading about the rising violence not only made me cancel my impending trip to Hong Kong but made me terrified for my friends living in the impacted area. With social unrest showing no signs of dying down according to the numerous news outlets, Hong Kong seemed completely out of reach.

Mid-November, soon after the reported attacks on Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, my trip was bound to take place. With a heavy heart, I boarded the plane, not knowing what to expect. Driving through Hong Kong in a local taxi, I blankly stared out the window, keeping my eyes peeled for any signs of violence.

To my surprise, the only violence I spotted was the occasional pedestrian shoving when crossing the street. The busy city center had strange tranquility to it, as if a calm after the storm, with sporadic screaming from the nearby street market. I turned to my cab driver politely asking him if the city was safe, to which he quietly murmured Shì de, which translates to “yes, that’s right.”

Can You Trust Media?

As I met my local friend, I was overcome with questions. Reading the news made me associate Hong Kong with terror and violence, while in reality, the city was lively and vibrant. I asked her how it was, living in the city amongst the protests. With a gloomy face, she answered, “terrible, terrible, don’t ask! They canceled [music festival] Clockenflap and the holidays. Besides that, it’s been fine.” Cancellation of a music festival and festivities is in fact terrible; however, such does not compare to the violence painted in the media.

While I grew extremely content that the region was safer than portrayed, I began questioning the legitimacy of international reporting. Is it safe to trust the media?

I was startled by the mismatch – the media portrayal of Hong Kong did not add up with the local life I was observing. As a political science major from Columbia University, I immediately thought of media bias.

Social media platforms and international media outlets provided opposing views about the intensity of the protests, confusing millions in the process. Interestingly, Hong Kong, Chinese, and American media show clashing perspectives of the demonstrations, blurring the lines between make belief and reality. Not only did media add flame to the controversial topic, social media platforms such as Sina Weibo, with a 340 million active subscription base, but also gave rise to misperception and variance of public opinion.

Strolling through Shing Wong Street with my camera, I was incorporated into local, everyday life. People smiling, yelling, selling, yet nothing screamed violence. Reading about the riots on paper formed my opinion about Hong Kong, however living the experience spoke louder than a thousand words, changing it completely.

Alexandra Sofine: Student at Columbia University in the City of New York, studying Political Science and Biology