When Beijing said this week that it saw the “first signs of terrorism” among Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, it marked a dangerous step in the progression of escalating talk.
Weeks of rallies, demonstrations and occupations have seen millions of people take to Hong Kong’s streets in the biggest challenge to China’s rule of the semi-autonomous city since its 1997 handover from Britain.
And as tensions between demonstrators and Hong Kong authorities intensify, so has the messaging from the central Chinese government, as it seeks to shape how the protests are perceived both overseas and on the mainland, where social media and news outlets are tightly controlled.
Here’s how Beijing’s framing of the protests has evolved:
On June 9, crowds bring central Hong Kong to a standstill to protest a controversial extradition law that critics say would erode freedoms in the city.
Organisers say more than a million people marched through the streets in opposition to the bill. State-run news agency Xinhua downplays it as a “public procession.”
At a press briefing in Beijing, Yang Guang, spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council, links foreign interference with separatism.
One of their goals is to “turn Hong Kong into a base for opposing the central government and a pawn to pin down China,” he tells reporters.
Demonstrators, frustrated by the government’s inflexibility, overrun the city’s legislature and vandalise the walls of Beijing’s office in Hong Kong.
Chinese authorities blame a “few radicals” among protesters, while coverage of alleged police brutality is censored on the mainland.
Official state news agency Xinhua warns “violent radicals” are pushing Hong Kong into an “abyss” and says there should be no compromise to their demands.
August sees a sharp increase in rhetoric and propaganda.
On August 1, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison in Hong Kong releases a slick video showing armed troops practising to quell a protest.
“The primary goal would be to intimidate Hong Kong protesters by suggesting they might move in and restore ‘stability’ by force,” said Andrew Chubb, a Chinese politics and foreign policy researcher at Lancaster University.
State-run outlets like the Global Times and People’s Daily circulate footage of police drills and military vehicles near the Shenzhen border in southern China.
On Tuesday, the day after protesters cripple Hong Kong’s busy airport, Beijing’s language gets toughter and it says the demonstrations show “the first signs of terrorism emerging”.
It repeats the charge on Wednesday, saying airport protesters are guilty of “terrorist-like actions”.
“The Communist Party uses its words very carefully,” said Ben Bland, a research fellow at Lowy Institute.
“The choice of words in this case is designed to signal to the Hong Kong authorities that they can use a higher degree of violence and repression,” he said.
“It’s designed to scare off the protesters by saying, ‘We view this very seriously.’”