‘Tree Hole’: Where mainland Chinese confess their support for the Hong Kong protests

Society & Culture

One person’s attempt to bridge the chasm between Hong Kong protesters and would-be mainland Chinese allies.

For the past six months, China’s propaganda and censorship machines have been on overdrive due to the Hong Kong protests, and have mostly succeeded in presenting a narrow, one-sided interpretation of a complicated affair. The Chinese government’s ability to create alternate realities is well-documented. But less appreciated is how observers outside the mainland might have a distorted view of Chinese opinions — if any view at all. Indeed, censorship is a two-way street: While news doesn’t get in, many voices — those of dissent, of moderation and reason, in this case — don’t get out.

This has had an underappreciated effect on the Hong Kong protest movement itself. While some protesters have appealed to the U.S. and the U.K. for help, scant few have reached out to mainland Chinese allies, perhaps unaware that allies exist. Sadly, incidents of protester violence against mainlanders have provided valuable grist for CCP propagandists, and has put a small, silent minority of pro-Hong Kong mainlanders in an impossible position: unable to speak up on the Chinese internet for fear of repercussions and unable to join the protesters because of their identity.

It is precisely these people that inspired one Hong Kong resident, who goes by Midway, to launch a project called “Tree Hole” (树洞 shù dòng), a platform for mainland Chinese, wherever they may reside, to anonymously profess their support for the Hong Kong protests. (In certain legends, tree hollows were where people could safely speak their secrets.) Midway put out an initial call in a tweet on November 13 — which currently has 533 retweets and 1.5K likes — asking for submissions via direct messages. He followed up with another tweet on November 29 with a link to a Google form where people can anonymously submit:

Born in mainland China before moving to Hong Kong early for schooling, Midway said he feels “extra painful” in this movement because he understands both sides. “There are a small fraction of Chinese people, mainland Chinese, who are supportive of Hong Kong but simply too afraid to speak out, and they have no channel to vent their support and to share their thoughts with others,” he said. “They are the ones who are most — how do I say — [who] feel the most pain. They feel the most lonely…simultaneously rejected by both sides. So I wanted to start this project to embrace them, to connect with them, show them that you are not alone and what you feel is important.”

Midway said he has received more than 200 notes so far, including from people as far away as Finland and the Middle East. Many of the notes read like personal essays, filled with self-awareness and pathos, in substance and spirit the obverse of Communist Party forced confessions. Writers admit to feelings of fear and rage, guilt and shame. “I am just brokenhearted,” one wrote. They talk about their home life, of lost friends, and censorship. “In the past, I’ve always known CCTV is selective with its reporting,” one wrote, referring to China’s primary state broadcaster. “Now, I know that when it needs to, CCTV is more than happy to outright lie.”

Midway has published about half of the entries on his Twitter account, where he has 21.1K followers, and plans to eventually publish them all (with the exception of the very short ones).

Here’s another example:

“[October 1] wasn’t my first time participating in the protest movement, and it won’t be my last. Do you know how dangerous it is for a mainlander to participate in the movement? I do. If I’m caught, I’ll be sent back to the mainland and vanished, and for the rest of my life be neither living nor dead. So what? If no one is willing to sacrifice themselves for freedom, then everyone will only surrender to tyranny.”

“A lot of Hong Kong people leave messages saying how surprised they are and how grateful they are for the kind words from mainland China,” Midway said.

Part of the reason Midway always trusted that Hong Kong has mainland Chinese sympathizers is because he’s seen firsthand how censorship warps perceptions and reality. During the heyday of microblogging, he was a “Big V” on Sina Weibo — a verified influencer, basically — and would post news and viewpoints not readily available on the mainland. “The things we talked about — universal values, due process, rule of law, those kind of things — they had a lot of supporters on the internet,” Midway said. “To my understanding, it was not just a small fraction of the people. I can say that it represented the majority of netizens, back then.”

But when authorities cracked down on microblogging, Sina began to aggressively remove messages that might be deemed politically sensitive. “The PRC government tried very hard to suppress the voices supporting democratic values and promote those who are supportive of the government,” Midway said. “So everything changed.

“But that’s why I know there are people in China who will be supportive of us.”

There are those within the movement who have already lent their support. Two days ago, unbeknownst to Midway, a Twitter account called @MainlandVoices popped up that is apparently dedicated to translating submissions from the Tree Hole project.

“There’s a slogan in the protest, 兄弟爬山, 各自努力 (xiōngdì páshān, gèzì nǔlì — roughly, ‘brothers on the same journey, each pulling his weight’),” Midway said. “That’s the essence, the very nature of this movement. A lot of normal people like me, like the guys behind Mainland Voices, we don’t know each other, but we share a common goal, some common purpose, and we do what we do out of our own will with the hope that it can bring some good to the movement. That’s how we’ve been able to sustain it for half a year.”

As for the future, Midway said he’ll try to continue as is, combing through submissions via Twitter and Facebook (where he has the help of a friend).

“I have a vision. I’m trying to build a bridge between mainland Chinese and Hong Kong people,” he said. “That’s actually what I was trying to do when I was on Weibo in previous years, to show people behind the Great Firewall what information is available on the outside. Unfortunately my accounts were deleted, but I can’t say I gained nothing. I value the time I spent there.

“And now I’ve moved from Weibo to Twitter and I’m trying to do the same: I’m trying to build bridges between those who live behind the Great Firewall and those in the freer world. This project is one of those steps I’m taking to achieve that.”