For the West, democracy is not only a core value but also represents the best possible form of government for all nations. This notion determined how the Western media perceived, interpreted and covered events in the 2014 Hong Kong protest.
When thousands of students called for a weeklong boycott of classes to demand open candidate nomination for Hong Kong’s upcoming Chief Executive election, the narrative of Hong Kong residents’ quest for ‘genuine’ universal suffrage struck a sympathetic chord with the Western media. The latter not only parroted the protestors’ claims, but reported the ensuing protest within the frame of a Hong Kong seeking democracy from an authoritarian China.
Thus Western media rejected other plausible explanations for the massive unrest, such as the youthful demonstrators’ sense of dislocation, scarcity of desirable jobs and affordable housing, other economic factors and antipathy toward China and Chinese mainlanders. This last factor of antipathy which some called an identity crisis proved to be especially difficult to fit into the media’s democracy frame because it led young people to demand a return of Hong Kong to the UK. But Hong Kong was a colony, never a democracy, under the British. Prior to and during Occupy Central, as the protest was collectively termed, Hong Kong youth demonstrated this desire in various marches by prominently displaying the UK colonial flag with the message: ‘I am a Hong Konger, not a Chinese’.
Early in the protest, the media often downplayed the context for the Hong Kong police’s use of force. They discounted the fact that the first confrontation between the police and students was actually precipitated by one of the student leaders. In coverage in which it was reported that protestors were urged by the student leader to break into the off-limits forecourt of a government complex, the subtext was clear: protestor actions were understandable given that Beijing rejected demands for ‘free elections’, while police use of tear gas in the ensuing chaos was inexcusable.
The media framing brought out many more Hong Kong residents to occupy the central district, bringing the central city to a standstill. Police attempting to disperse the crowd on 28 September were shown in a video titled ‘Who initiated the attack’. Vastly outnumbered, police stood tensely behind low barricades against a surging crowd of angry protestors. They raised a red banner warning the crowd to ‘stop charging or we will use force’. Suddenly, protestors at the front charged the police with their pointy umbrellas.
But media coverage of this incident generally started with the police crackdown which followed the umbrella charge. The non-contextualised image of police tossing tear gas into the crowd helped mobilise those who thought the police action was unwarranted and excessive. Participants of the 2013 protest, which was also called Occupy Central, joined the students at this point and assembled en masse to swell the protest after 28 September. Although the original leaders who started the 2013 Occupy Central had hoped for a turnout of a few thousand supporters at their 2014 demonstration, the media had delivered massive mobilisation beyond their wildest dreams.
The Western media clung to the myth that the protestors were ‘peaceful’, but as early as 3 October, they were blocking an ambulance from reaching a collapsed policeman. Being incongruent with the narrative of a peaceful demand for democracy, incidents of protestor violence went unreported: off-duty police officers were attacked, fire extinguishers were turned on, and weapons such as bricks or boards spiked with nails were used against the police. Also unreported was a nine-day petition drive in late October (garnering 1.83 million signatures) supporting police action to return the roads to the citizens.
Responsible media would have explored what the protestors truly had in mind when labelling the protest as ‘pro-democracy’. Did Beijing, as protestors claimed, contravene the principles set forth in the 1984 Sino–British Joint Declaration and betray its promise of universal suffrage? Despite it being a central rallying point, do protestors have a clear notion and an agreed-upon definition of ‘democracy’? What is ‘genuine’ universal suffrage and ‘open nomination’? What, if any, are the rules and procedures of an ‘open nomination’? Is open nomination — a form of direct democracy — the only acceptable model? Or would the representational democracy of the West suffice? The media failed to address these central questions.
With their ingrained prejudice against China and idealised assumptions about the protestors’ motives and demands, Western media outlets were not only biased, but failed to appreciate the complexity of the situation. Instead, they streamlined the coverage to fit into their preconceived notions about democracy. Thus the saying ‘if you don’t read the news, you are uninformed; if you do read the news, you are misinformed’ is a fitting description of the Western media’s coverage of the protest in Hong Kong.
Ivy Lee is Emeritus Professor at California State University, Sacramento.