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Why We Shouldn’t Call Hong Kong Protests a Revolution

Ishaan Tharoor relays [1] 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.

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4 Comments To "Why We Shouldn’t Call Hong Kong Protests a Revolution"

#1 Comment By Tom On October 6, 2014 @ 2:04 am

Another myth perpetuated by the news media is that this dispute is over broken promises by the Chinese government. But that’s simply not true.

The Basic Law clearly states that the Chief Executive of Hong Kong is to be “appointed by the central people’s government”, and that “the ultimate aim” is “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee.” Annex I then defines “broadly representative” to be representative of specific constituencies. It’s not one man, one vote.

That’s what was promised. And that’s exactly what Hong Kong is getting in 2017: elections by universal suffrage from a slate chosen by a nominating committee.

What the demonstrators want is for the Chinese government to change its promise into something quite different: an open ballot without a nominating committee.

That’s fine. The protesters can demand whatever they want. But call a spade a spade.

#2 Comment By Doi Xuan On October 6, 2014 @ 4:30 pm

You selectively arranged quotes from The Basic Law. Annex I in full states: “The Chief Executive shall be elected by a broadly representative Election Committee in accordance with this Law and appointed by the Central People’s Government.”

Clearly, “appointed” follows prior election by the Election Committee.

Your attempt to frame this as Beijing’s right to “hand-pick” the Chief Executive fails.

#3 Comment By Tom On October 6, 2014 @ 8:00 pm

Doi Xuan: You’re attacking a straw man.. I framed it as nothing of the sort.

The word “appoint” is not there to let them ignore the result of the election. That would be a poll, not an election.

The word “appoint” is there to assert Chinese sovereignty. Much like the Queen of Great Britain has to approve legislation before it goes into effect. The Chinese government also has to appoint the winner of the election before he can become Chief Executive.

But that has absolutely nothing to do with what they’re protesting over. They’re not protesting that the Chinese government is ignoring the results of an election. The election isn’t even being held until 2017.

The “ultimate aim” is “universal suffrage,” but there is no deadline. It is simply a nebulous goal. And even when universal suffrage is granted, it is still subject to nomination of candidates by the “broadly representative committee,” as defined in Annex I (with amendments).

But in 2017, the elections committee turns into a nominating committee. Instead of electing the Chief Executive directly, they merely nominate candidates. The candidates then get voted on by universal suffrage.

In other words, the “ultimate aim” — which Beijing has no obligation to deliver until it feels like it — is being achieved in 2017. Beijing didn’t have to do it. But they did.

What the protesters are saying is that even this isn’t enough. They don’t want what they were promised. They want more. They want the nominations to be open as well.

That’s all fine and well. They can ask for anything that they feel like. But what they’re asking for is not what the Basic Law promised.

#4 Comment By Travis On October 12, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

Tom is definitely right about the Basic Law.