The Colour Revolution Show: From Maidan to Myanmar

OP-ED. Written By: Laura Ruggeri Published: 10/04/2021

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.

Burning Needs

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.

Coming Soon At A Protest Site Near You!

This successful format made its appearance in Thailand and Hong Kong, where protesters adopted the three-finger salute alongside signs and slogans in English for the sake of global audiences. Although this salute dates back to the French Revolution, those who started using it in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and more recently in Yangon, knew it only as the ‘Hunger Games’ salute. One wonders if the Myanmar representative to the United Nations who raised the three fingers while addressing the General Assembly was also a fan of the Hollywood franchise, and whether he condones arson and street violence. He may have lost his job as a diplomat, but his stunt was applauded by Western media – the same media that seemed pleased protesters “channelled their inner Katniss” when they were turning inner cities into a war zone. Photojournalists staged, framed and digitally edited images with dramatic light effects to foster emotional identification with the rebels – to the extent that one could no longer tell whether these pictures were taken on a movie set or during a riot. Such spectacularization of protests should raise ethical questions about contemporary photojournalism, but this is unlikely to happen when those who commission and reward this work are actively marketing colour revolutions themselves.

Crises of Identity

While protests are seen by those who take part in them as a vehicle for global recognition, we witness an erosion of the boundary between the Self and its reflection with narcissism, alienation and loss of identity as tragic by-products. When Hong Kong protesters proudly claim “We are not Chinese” – we see a confirmation of this alienation. And when Joshua Wong, the poster boy of this inauthentic “Revolution of Our Times”, declared “being famous is part of my job” in the Netflix production, Joshua:Teenager vs Superpower, we should pay attention because his words reveal not only an inflated sense of self-importance (usually a telling tale of a narcissistic character), but also a peculiar type of political subjectivity that feeds on fame.

Joshua Wong was picked and groomed for the role of ‘symbol of protest’ not despite but because of his awkwardness. This skinny, chunky glasses-wearing nerd looks like a stereotypical victim of school bullying. If Joshua Wong is cast as a Victim Hero, it follows that the Superpower he is up against in this asymmetrical fight must be a bully. Here we have all the elements of a conventional underdog story where the hero sets out to destroy an evil of some kind, generally larger or greater than himself. It’s no coincidence that Joshua, the Bible reader who loves superheroes makes frequent reference to David and Goliath and Star Wars: they follow the same basic plot, as do The Hunger Games.

Availing himself of ghost writers for his books, featuring in US-funded docudramas, appearing on the cover of foreign magazines, spouting scripted slogans, it’s hardly any surprise that Joshua Wong could reach international fame. By doing so unwittingly he revealed that the make-believe politics he is involved in have a lot in common with show business and its weaponization. In such “revolutions”, the power to create a crisis merges with the power to control the production and circulation of narratives about that crisis. This subsequently translates into the power to direct and coordinate the response. Fiction ignites the imagination, frames the story and becomes enmeshed in the ensuing social reality. As Jean Baudrillard noted over three decades ago, in the age of hyperreality the image/ simulation dominates, and reality is replaced by false images to such an extent that one can no longer distinguish between the real and the unreal.

Mango Press