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Don’t Call It a Revolution

Chris Yeung explains why the protesters in Hong Kong reject the “revolution” label that the Chinese authorities and Western media outlets have attached to their movement:

Beijing has adopted the term “revolution” to paint the protesters as extreme, and Western media in their haste to brand the movement have embraced the same term. But the idea of revolution had never even occurred to many ordinary citizens of Hong Kong. Nor did the protesters have any intention of toppling the government as a whole, or remaking Hong Kong’s relationship with China, when they chanted the slogan “Leung Chun-ying step down.” These calls for his downfall were instead a response to a specific incident, and emerged only after police ordered the use of tear gas to break up a crowd of protesters on September 28. Despite his unpopularity, Leung was not a target of the Occupy movement when it began.

Chinese authorities have an obvious incentive to misrepresent what the protesters are trying to do, since they are keen to discourage imitation of the protests elsewhere in the country and want to scare off as many people from sympathizing with the movement as possible. If they can portray the protests as dangerous, foreign-sponsored, or a rejection of the regime itself, that provides pretexts for harsher measures against the protesters. Labeling the protests as a “color revolution” reflects the belief that outside forces must be responsible for anything that happens in China against Beijing’s wishes, and it may also reflect a certain anxiety that some of those so-called “revolutions” forced a change in leadership. The “color revolution” label has the advantage of referring to various uprisings over the last decade that weren’t always as democratic or meaningful as advertised.

The Western habit of labeling these protests as a revolution has a few different sources. The first is a tendency to equate any political development that Westerners happen to like with “revolutionary” change. Bestowing the “revolution” label on a movement is how Western observers express their approval, no matter how inaccurate or counterproductive such labeling may be. Another is the related assumption that “revolutionary” change is generally desirable. If the protesters seem sympathetic, and Western observers like what they are demanding, there is no attention to any possible downsides of the protesters’ success. Because the focus is on “rooting” for the movement and hoping that it “wins,” there is no consideration of what comes next. This obliviousness was especially on display during the Kiev protests over the winter, since it never seemed to occur to Western boosters of the protests that a sudden change in government could bring about disaster for the country. Yet another is the willingness of many Western observers to assume that street protests represent what “the people” of a particular city or country as a whole want. If large protests appear in a major city somewhere, they are often treated as broadly representative when that is often not the case, and what “the people” are said to want is accepted more or less uncritically. Regardless of what the protesters are actually seeking, their movement becomes the occasion here in the West to insist on “taking a stand” or “speaking out” on their behalf, which is mostly an exercise in congratulating ourselves on being high-minded enough to back up a protest movement that we haven’t bothered to understand in the first place.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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