Scholar Yuezhi Zhao argues the Umbrella Revolution does not appeal to broader struggles within mainland China
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Images of mass demonstrations in Hong Kong of youth protesting in the Umbrella Revolution evokes memory of Arab Spring and the Green Revolution in Iran. What may be common among them is how new technologies have given rise to the new medium of organizing.
Our guest today is here to talk about to what extent new technologies are playing [a role] in the Umbrella Revolution. Will it ignite a Twitter revolution, especially in the mainland China?
Joining us from Vancouver is Dr. Yuezhi Zhao. She’s professor and Canada research chair in political economy of global communications at Simon Fraser University.
Thank you so much for joining us, Professor Zhao.
DR. YUEZHI ZHAO, ASSOC. PROF. COMMUNICATION, SIMON FRASER UNIVERSITY: Thank you. I’m very glad.
PERIES: So let’s start with the influence new technologies are having in organizing the Umbrella Revolution first in Hong Kong.
ZHAO: Yes. Hong Kong is definitely one of the most wired, most media-centered cities in the world. And I think it’s perhaps not coincidental that in the most recent iconic image of the protest that was on the cover of the Time magazine, you have the 17-year-old male youth, student leader, and he wears, of course, a T-shirt with a powerful slogan, and in his hand is the cell phone. So there’s no doubt that information technology, especially mobile phone, has played a key role in the current protests. Of course, to the extent that Hong Kong, as I said, is such a media-centered society, we might take this for granted as compared to, say, the situation in the Middle East or in mainland China, where the penetration of technology’s not as broad as Hong Kong.
PERIES: Let’s talk about the mainland. One thing we don’t hear much about is the level of discontent in China among the working classes there. Do they even know about the demonstrations that are going on in Hong Kong? Do they understand what’s happening in terms of the protests and what their demands are?
ZHAO: I think the people know. Of course, the Chinese media, during the national holidays, the earlier parts of the movement, there was not much coverage. But in the past few days there has been coverage–of course with its own framing. And also, given the intensity of interaction of people and just the flow of population during the national holiday time when people are basically just–you know, millions of people are moving around the country, I will be surprised that if the people in the mainland were not understanding what’s going on and also were not talking about it. So there’s no question that I think people are talking about it and people are aware about it of it.
But then, in terms of the extent to which whether the Hong Kong protest will serve as, you know, the Western media’s wish, in their wish that this will serve as the sparkle that will light up some kind of prairie fire of protest inside China, I think it’s a big question, because I really think that the demands and the way the protests in Hong Kong is framed might not resonate with the lower social classes of mainland China. And these are the social classes, the laborers, the migrant workers, who have been on the forefront of social protest. But I think there’s a huge gap between the protest movement in Hong Kong right now and the way it is presented through the Western media mostly and the social struggles of China’s lower social classes.
PERIES: Well, let’s deconstruct what you think of the Western media’s coverage, why you think that, and why is Time magazine putting the Hong Kong demonstrations, which, in comparison to other things that are going on in the world and the other protests that are going on in the world, it’s really not that significant in numbers.
ZHAO: Definitely. I think, yes, in addition to the recent Time image, Time magazine image, I think the most iconic or most representative or extreme of the Western media’s frame is probably the Economist frame, “The Party v the people”–Hong Kong is in struggle for the future of China, right? I think to frame the Hong Kong protest in terms of the people versus the party, I think it’s a little bit stretched, especially if you’re trying to invoke this in terms of the people within mainland China. There’s no question that, I think, the low social classes, including the youth in Hong Kong, are not benefiting from Hong Kong’s return to mainland China, especially to the extent that Hong Kong right now is in the middle of economic recession, and also to the extent that much of the benefits of Hong Kong’s return to mainland China economic integration has come to the more rich, the capitalist class, if you will. So I think there is in a way a resentment and real inspirations for a more egalitarian and just Hong Kong society. But I think this dimension is not being articulated in the current Hong Kong movement. And I think unless/until that kind of inspiration is being channeled into the current media frame, I don’t think the Hong Kong protest will be linked up with social struggles within China.
PERIES: Professor Zhao, one of the things that we know is happening in mainland China is that there are number of labor protests like that of we saw against Apple in the Foxconn factory, and there is rebellions going on throughout China and the discontent of the working class. However, we don’t see much of that in our mainstream media or the media coverage in the mainland. My question to you is: is this revolution, the Umbrella Revolution, wouldn’t it spark another revolution in terms of labor in the mainland China?
ZHAO: Yeah, I think your question is right on. There has been a protest that–most of these are kind of small-scale. And the Western media has occasional coverage, especially in the print media, but there has not been widespread reporting to the extent that suddenly the current Umbrella Revolution got the attention. And I think, actually, even in Hong Kong last year there was a major labor protest, a darker workers’ protest, that last the longest in the post-war Hong Kong period, more than 40 days. And there is not the kind of media coverage in the West.
So I think the Western media really have a bias there. And it, of course, fits in with this preoccupation with electoral democracy, the liberal democratic framework that has been dominating the Western media’s coverage of China, and also the fact they are probably looking for that kind of story. So I think the Hong Kong protest, even from the very beginning, is being framed as almost, yeah, like, what you see, as something that might spark the protest inside China. But I think this is a misarticulation or maybe misjudgment. Actually, some of the protest, protesters inside China precisely because they learned a lesson from the June 4, ’89, movement and the extent to which the student movement might not articulate the lower social class considerations.
Many of the protests inside China are more focused on livelihood issues. Actually, years ago, actually, I even heard a story of protest workers, laid off workers in northeast China who deliberately put out the slogan that we do not want democracy, we just want food to eat. Does that mean that the workers do not really want democracy? I don’t think so. I think they took this as a strategy. They want to differentiate themselves with a narrow electoral notion of democracy. And I think they want to focus more on social and economic dimensions. And, of course, this dimension of the economic and social resonates with, I think, a more salient notion of a Chinese notion of democracy that incorporates a social dimension. And, of course, that historically has been articulated in terms of in terms of a social [movement (?)] rather than Western notion of democracy. So I think there’s really a dis-articulation here between the Western media frame of the party versus people and then domestic Chinese social struggles that focus on issues of economic and social justice.
PERIES: Professor Zhao, this is a very important point you’re making. Let’s take this up in part two of our conversation, the social democracy and socialization of democracy in China. And we’ll take that up in part two.
PERIES: Thank you for joining us.
ZHAO: Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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