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Why Internet censorship in China is a sign of government fear

Protests in Hong Kong have brought Internet freedom in China to the forefront of current news. Protesters are defying authorities with demands for greater democracy.

Politically minded protesters have been uploading selfies of their shaved heads and posting pro-democracy comments online. Some social media users also shared photos of President Xi Jinping carrying an umbrella, reported the New York Times. The umbrella is a symbol for protest and an often-used tool to guard against rain, sun burn and pepper spray during demonstrations.   

Government censorship increases
Fu King-wa, professor of media studies at Hong Kong University, commented that deletions on Sina Weibo have increased over the past few days. Sina Weibo is China's most popular microblog service. The increased deletions demonstrate that the Communist Party is continually working to censor protest-inspired content. Words such as "Hong Kong" and "barricades" were blocked on the site. The word "umbrella" also did not yield search results. Additionally, television coverage of the protests were blacked out, with service returning briefly when footage of pro-Beijing interview subjects were on, reported the news source.

"In the past two days, we can see a lot of people holding phones and taking pictures of different [Hong Kong protest] scenes on Instagram, Facebook and sharing it around," King-wa told CNN.  

As a result of all the social media activity, Instagram has been blocked in China since Sunday. Users receive a "can't refresh" response and cannot view images or messages on the site.

The Chinese government strictly controls what can be accessed on the Internet and social media. The firewalls maintained by the Communist party apply to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Google is usually inaccessible, reported CNN. Hong Kong does not experience the same restrictions, however.

Traditional news outlets continue to ignore the protests. According to The China Media Project, less than 25 newspapers covered the protests in Hong Kong, reported the New York Times. Most papers ran an article published by official Xinhua news that discussed the impetuous behavior of protesters.

In recent years, the Communist Party has tried to influence public opinion by spreading pro-government propaganda while censoring any information that might be contrary to their ideology. According to David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong, the recent protests have overwhelmed Chinese authorities.

"They seem to be completely at a loss as how to handle this," Bandurski told the New York Times.

The protests strike a sensitive nerve
Most analysts believe that while China's government will probably succeed in keeping protest news hidden, any defiance to the regime will be met with harsh reprimand.

Especially controversial are photos of police confronting pro-democracy protesters, which serve as a reminder of Tiananmen Square. King-wa Fu, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, explained how the protests strike a nerve with Chinese authorities.

"If you look at the political agenda of protests in Hong Kong, they have the same objectives. They're calling for democracy in Hong Kong and political reform. These are two main sensitive topics in China. This is the topic they don't want the Chinese citizens to widely discuss," Fu said, reported CNN.

Despite the widespread censorship in China, it is impossible to keep all knowledge of the Hong Kong protests out. Forty million visitors from mainland China arrive each year. The government can work hard to control the place where communication and sharing of information happens, but they cannot control what people know. Adjunct professor for the School of Information at the University of California, Xiao Qiang, explained why the Chinese government is so afraid protest-inspired rhetoric.

"The Chinese government fears that the kinds of protest and exercise of rights demanding greater political freedom will be contagious and trigger something in China," Qiang said, reported the news source.

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