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Western media says Hong Kong protests are "clean and orderly." Is that racist?

Hong Kong's protesters clean up garbage
Hong Kong's protesters clean up garbage
Paula Bronstein/Getty

If you've read more than a couple of articles in the Western press about the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, you have probably encountered an article describing, in a tone that might sound like surprise or wonder, just how clean and orderly the demonstrations have been.

This has led some observers, including a number of reporters writing these stories, to argue that this orderliness shows the unique and praise-worthy cultural traits of Hong Kongers, whom they describe as more responsible and peaceful than protesters in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, other observers have argued that such media coverage is racist, either because it indulges stereotypes of orderly, well-behaved Chinese or because it implies that non-Chinese protesters are more violent.

(That New York Times story, the headline of which was changed to "Hong Kong Protests Are Leaderless but Orderly," is here.) It's worth looking, in a bit more nuance, at what's happening in Hong Kong's streets right now and why. To that end, I would highlight two points.

1) The protesters are making a deliberate and politically oriented effort to maintain order, which is newsworthy

It is true that Hong Kong's protesters have been going way out of their way to emphasize cleanliness and politeness. Cleaning crews are assigned and trash collection organized. When it poured rain recently, protesters held umbrellas over the same police who had cracked down on them earlier. This is a deliberate, strategic choice in line with the protester's political goals, as well as an earnest expression of communal pride.

These acts are meant to signal civic responsibility and to preemptively counter the notion, already put forward by official Chinese state media, that the protests are driven by criminals or are actively seeking to disrupt order. This notion is extremely dangerous — not only is it being used to undermine support for the protesters, but it could later be used to justify a bloody crackdown, much as it was during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, a possibility that protesters are actively anticipating. Protesters understand that one way to guard against this is by clearly establishing the narrative that they are responsible, conscientious stewards of public order — not criminals.

For reporters to note that this is occurring is journalistically appropriate. Further, observers who wish for the protesters to succeed should welcome this narrative, which the protesters are actively cultivating with good reason.

2) This practice is not unique to Hong Kong, a fact that is essential to understanding it

At the same time, however, Hong Kong's protesters are not the first in the history of protest to do this. This was also a major, pointed activity at the 2011 Egyptian protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, for example, and in Istanbul's Taksin Gezi Park in 2013, and in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier this year. In all cases, it occurred for largely the same reasons.

But a number of China-focused writers, who are otherwise rightly considered among the most talented in foreign journalism, have explicitly written that this practice is unique to Hong Kong's protests, which is categorically false. (A weakness of regional specialists can be this loss of context.) Worse, they have portrayed this story as indicating the praise-worthy cultural traits of people in Hong Kong. Positive stereotypes are still stereotypes; in the American context, these traits of cleanliness and obedience are often central to positive stereotypes of Chinese people as a model minority, which is patronizing and racist.

This is all to say that it is not inherently irresponsible or racist to note that Hong Kong's protesters are going to great lengths to maintain a clean and respectful atmosphere, as this is a direct and newsworthy extension of their political strategy. However, it is possible — and all too easy — to report this in a way that perpetuates harmful stereotypes and that does a disservice to these protesters by reducing their acts to race or culture.

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