21 April 2019
Umbrellas have become a prevalent symbol of Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests. Photo: Bloomberg
Umbrellas have become a prevalent symbol of Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests. Photo: Bloomberg

Let’s avoid using the ‘R’ word, please

Exhausted by hours of overtime, an overworked sub-editor is wracking his brains for a new headline to describe the protests. With so many articles on the same subject, he needs something fresh.

That is probably how the phrase “umbrella revolution” was coined to describe the pro-democracy street protests in Hong Kong. As a catchy headline, it is excellent. But, as a description, it is both inaccurate and the worst word to use for the readers in Zhongnanhai — a red rag to a bull.

This is how the dictionary defines the word “revolution”: “A complete overthrow and replacement of an established government by force … a sudden, complete change.” This is not at all what the students in black T-shirts have in mind. If there was one in China, the outcome would not be a democratic state but, most likely, a coup d’etat by someone like Vladimir Putin.

The reason why it is the worst word is that it feeds the narrative of many in the Communist Party and its leadership that the outside world, especially the United States and its allies, are engaged in a long-term and relentless campaign to overthrow the party and replace it with a tame pro-western regime.

This narrative has deep historical roots. The party was born in Shanghai in July 1921 into a pit of vipers. It had enemies everywhere — the ruling Nationalist government and its formidable secret police apparatus and the colonial powers who controlled Shanghai and hated Communism.

Even Josef Stalin, the ruler of Soviet Russia, regarded the party with ambiguity. For him, it was a way to divide and weaken China; he was a nationalist before he was a Communist. After World War II, he proposed a division of China.

When Chairman Mao went to Moscow in December 1949, his first excursion outside China, Stalin did not meet him on arrival and kept him waiting for several days in a government dacha where he had to watch propaganda films. He banned circulation of a laudatory biography of Mao by an American socialist. Having just won the world’s most populous country for Communism, Mao expected something much better.

The critical moment came after the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 1950. Soldiers from 15 countries joined the US in defending the South. Mao considered whether he should intervene.

Defense Minister Lin Biao, the most successful general in the People’s Liberation Army, strongly opposed it, saying the government was not strong enough and should not make an enemy of the US. Mao overruled him and entered the war.

So began a Sino-American conflict that lasted 28 years until diplomatic normalization in December 1978 and, for many people in the party, continues until now. It was a military, diplomatic and economic war.

But, 36 years later, the world has completely changed. China is the world’s second largest economic power and the biggest holder of US sovereign debt — US$1.26 trillion as of the end of April this year. The US is the largest trading partner of China; the volume last year was US$521 billion.

American companies are major investors in China, just as Chinese firms and individuals are buying US assets on a level never seen before.

The US government and its companies have every reason to want a stable and friendly regime in Beijing. They have everything to lose if China had a revolution, with economic consequences that cannot be imagined.

Britain, France and the other countries of Europe have even more reason than the US not to want a revolution in China. Their economies are weaker and they are short of natural resources; they urgently need the inflow of Chinese capital, technology, students and tourists. That is why their leaders are so reserved in their support of the Hong Kong students.

Germany, the strongest economy in Europe, has an enormous stake too. Bilateral trade last year between the two hit US$161.6 billion. Germany is China’s top trade partner in the EU. Germany accounts for nearly half of all EU exports to China while nearly a quarter of China’s exports to the EU go to Germany. China is the top foreign investment destination for German companies; more than 8,000 of its firms have invested more than US$20 billion there.

So who wants a revolution in China? Certainly none of the major western powers whom Beijing accuses of planning one. The word is a relic of the Cold War which hardliners in the party like to use to attack their opponents. Let us not give them the opportunity.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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