Why We Shouldn’t Call Hong Kong Protests a Revolution
Ishaan Tharoor relays a message from Hong Kong protesters:
But no matter the striking optics of Hong Kong’s week of student-led pro-democracy protests, there’s one interpretation of events that its top activists insist you should not make: Please, they say, do not call this a revolution.
There are two good reasons why outsiders should respect this request. First, it is obviously inaccurate to describe peaceful protests that seek redress for grievances within the confines of an existing political system as a revolution. Revolution implies a major and sudden political change, and that isn’t what the protesters are seeking. Even if Beijing acquiesced to the demands of leading protest groups, there would be no revolutionary change in the politics of Hong Kong or China as a whole. The other reason is that loose talk of “revolution” is sure to be seized on and used against the protesters by their government. The more that Beijing perceives the protests as openly hostile to their regime or intent on overturning all existing political arrangements, the more likely Chinese authorities are to use brutal methods to disperse and put down the protests. There is not much that outsiders can practically do for protesters in Hong Kong, but they can correctly describe what’s going on and refrain from portraying the protests in a way that will make it a little easier for their government to crush them.
The Western media habit of identifying each new protest movement around the world as a revolution, and usually pairing it with some symbol or color or other distinguishing characteristic, is a very unfortunate one, and one that I hope everyone stops indulging from now on. Misrepresenting foreign protests in this way creates unnecessary confusion about each movement’s real goals and motives, and it also makes the mistake of feeding the paranoia and alarmism of the regime that the protesters are facing. When the Green movement protests began in Iran, there was a strong desire among many in the West to see those protests as a complete rejection of the regime and as an opportunity to bring the regime down, and they dubbed this “the Green Revolution.” This mistaken belief was broadcast far and wide for months. Hard-liners in the regime also perceived–or claimed to perceive–the protests as a “color revolution,” which they understood to mean that the protests were sponsored and fomented by foreign powers aimed at the destruction the regime. The destruction of the regime was never going to happen, but the point is that this wasn’t what the protesters were seeking. It did the regime a favor that it didn’t need and shouldn’t have been given to suggest otherwise. Many Westerners took an interest in the Green movement because they wanted it to be a regime-changing revolutionary force, and then lost interest in the Iranian opposition when the latter failed to share their preoccupations. For the same reasons, Western coverage of the protests in Hong Kong shouldn’t try to turn them into something that they’re not.