EDITOR’S NOTE: Of the many forms of imperialism, from the subtle to the genocidal, perhaps the least understood is Cultural Imperialism. It is as intrusive as it is agile, as pervasive as it is elusive.
The Hong Kong protests and riots in 2019 represented the culmination of decades of western imperial grooming of this highly strategic city. Asset cultivation and the frequent deployment of western pop-culture tropes – accelerated by already pervasive postcolonial cultural imperialism – combined with a vulnerable young population harboring a xenophobic jealosy of mainland China and Chinese people. This explosive cocktail finally burst in 2019, after an earlier attempt in 2014 failed, by which time it had already raised an entire army of extremist manchurian rioters – willing to sell their own identities to be loyal foot soldiers of the West. Although in the minority, this group tended to almost completely overshadow the peaceful protestors with genuine grievances.
The same western pop-culture tropes used to raise these arsonists were used to elicit sympathy for them in the West: such as the (in)famous three-finger salute and slogans such as “if we burn, you burn with us”. Many across the globe were shocked to see these people beg for US intervention and sanctions on their own city, or physically abuse their fellow Chinese citizens for speaking Mandarin, or beat up innocent civilians for disagreeing with them (while demanding “democracy” and “free speech”), and ultimately, killing one man and setting another on fire, and destroying public property en masse for months. That the narrative was so successful in not only justifying violence, not only glorifying it, but also eliciting western sympathy for it – demonstrates the usefulness of US cultural imperialism and pop culture as a key vector of America’s hybrid war against China.
Mango Press is pleased to publish an article by Laura Ruggeri, an Italian-born writer and scholar living in Hong Kong since 1997. She brilliantly dissects the technology and symbols of pro-US protests from Ukraine to Hong Kong – and how these “color revolution” operations are marketed to a global audience. An earlier version of this article was published on Medium and is included and republished here with permission. – Maitreya
Giving The Fingers
Why has a three-finger salute been adopted by protesters from Thailand to Myanmar? Why did rioters in Hong Kong carry bows and arrows as part of their lethal arsenal and famously declared “If we burn, you burn with us”? And why did the slogan “Hunger Games since 1994. Death to the regime!” appear on banners in Belarus? To answer these questions we need to look at how colour revolutions and the global media industry feed on each other to create mutually reinforcing spirals within the context of cultural imperialism, that systematic dissemination of cultural products, values, behaviors that conform with the interests of the hegemonic centre. It is also useful to consider how the reiteration of particular narratives across different media influences the construction of social and political identities.
When a colour revolution was instigated in Ukraine at the end of 2013, Western media outlets quickly drew parallels between the street battles in Kiev and a fictional rebellion against tyranny that had smashed box office records a year earlier. By conflating the Maidan square protest and The Hunger Games, a Hollywood film franchise, the media created an easily marketable hybrid, the “Ukraine-ger Games” — one part fact, two parts fiction — which would prove a very useful template for the promotion of subsequent colour revolutions to global audiences. As marketing strategies revolve around hype, creating the buzz required a well-planned process that entailed building an online presence, using both established news channels and setting up new ones, increasing visibility on social media by recruiting influencers, bloggers, opinion leaders and, last but not least, celebrities.
The Hunger Games trilogy supplied a repertoire of expressions, gestures, behaviours to those who took part in these carefully choreographed colour revolutions. Thai protesters adopted the three-finger salute popularized by its heroine Katniss Everdeen, in Hong Kong they screamed and spray-painted “laam chau”, the Cantonese equivalent of the script line “If we burn, you burn with us”, and even used arrow bows, Katniss’ trademark weapon. Fire plays an important role both in The Hunger Games — the protagonist is referred to as “the girl on fire” — and in the quasi-fictional space of revolt. In Ukraine the protesters erected huge bonfires in Maidan Square, torched buildings and vehicles; in Hong Kong they threw hundreds of fire bombs, set alight stores, stations, trains and even a man.
The hagiographic coverage of these riots by mainstream media followed the same binary opposition underpinning The Hunger Games plot: good vs evil, the oppressed vs a brutal totalitarian regime, David vs Goliath.
Because taking part in a foreign-funded regime change is not as heroic as standing up for freedom, justice and democracy, these concepts are usually evoked to mobilize the masses: stripped of any potentially divisive ideological connotation (colour revolutions are inter-classist) they remain open to interpretation in order to ignite the imagination. If disembodied ideals alone don’t spark a mass movement, then the media industry can easily produce cool role-models: Ukrainian pop star Ruslana Lyzhychko, conspicuously on the front line of protest, was compared by Newsweek to The Hunger Games’ heroine, Katniss Everdeen. With a vague resemblance to the actress playing the fictional character, she was perfectly cast in the role of revolutionary icon.
Anyone can play a role in the Ukraine-ger Games and obtain recognition, be it thousand of ‘likes’ and followers on social media or an interview on CNN. No previous political experience required: the film trilogy provided a rich repertoire of visual themes and scripted lines that could be readily repurposed as agit prop material: “Ukraine is the 13th District in the Center of Europe. I appeal to you: Rise up!!! Demand sanctions for Ukraine right now!”. The reference to the fictional 13th district wouldn’t be lost on young audiences both at home and abroad, as they all consume the same global pop culture that colonizes their imagination.