Violent protests have recently put Hong Kong's prosperity and stability in severe jeopardy, garnering a great deal of international attention. What merits caution is that, like in the "Occupy Central" movement of 2014, the protesters involved in the violent chaos of Hong Kong today are using radical “street resistance" to attack government institutions and block key transportation routes. They seek to put pressure on the central and Special Autonomous Regional governments. Trying in vain to achieve their political demands, such as the reversal of government policy decisions, the resignation of SAR government officials like the chief executive, and even Hong Kong independence, this illegal movement demonstrates many signs of a color revolution and intervention by foreign powers. These events are no longer simply the normal expression of the people’s opinion; they are subversive activities driven entirely by external forces.
We must clearly recognize the "black hands,” and respond calmly. Protecting Hong Kong's prosperity and stability is a determination shared by 1.4 billion Chinese people. Any attempt to use a color revolution to bring chaos to China and Hong Kong is guaranteed to fail.
In recent years, color revolutions have gradually become the greatest source of unrest to threaten the security of developing nations’ political regimes. Although these color revolutions are called "revolutions" and are driven by the people, they are, in fact, extensively controlled by external forces whose ultimate goal is to overthrow foreign regimes and create "controlled chaos," leading the state and its people to disaster. The Arab Spring of 2011 is a prime example.
Since the end of the Cold War, there have been an increasing number of color revolutions which use nonviolent means to achieve political change. From the revolutions of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe, to the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia; from the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, to the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan; and from the Arab Spring in 2011 to Ukraine's "Second Color Revolution" in 2014, all are typical examples of color revolutions. In addition, some countries (such as Belarus, Iran and Lebanon, etc.) have experienced failed color revolutions. Statistics show that more than 90% of all regime collapses in the past 30 years were due to "non-violent revolutions."
Color revolutions seem to arise suddenly, but in fact they happen when long-term cultural infiltration by Western nations reaches a tipping point. Typically, many different warning signs appear before a color revolution throws the nation's political, economic and ideological systems into disarray. By and large, any developing nation that eventually erupts into color revolution first experiences different manifestations of unrest. These can be summed up as the following three primary signs. The first sign is severe economic recession. The second is the rise of opposition forces at all levels of society. The third is confusion of ideology. As Zeng Guofan once said, "Since days of old, times of chaos are necessarily preceded by a confusion of right and wrong, and then there is political upheaval; disaster soon follows." Color revolutions are akin to shooting a goal after repeatedly passing the ball up and down the soccer field; the aim is to deal a final, winning blow.
Western powers are fond of color revolutions because they have a big return on investment. Compared to waging war, they mainly use indirect means to achieve regime change, so there is little cost, and large reward. At the end of 2004, during Ukraine's Orange Revolution, the U.S. provided $65 million in political funds to Ukraine's opposition coalition via public organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy and Open Society foundations. These expenses don't even add up to 0.01% of the trillions spent on the war in Iraq. What's more, as a hegemonic tool, color revolutions are effective. They often put the affected government between a rock and a hard place; if the ruling government uses force to suppress protests (and these protesters acting as "human shields" don't even understand that they're being manipulated by political forces), then that government is isolated by Western nations. But if the country does not suppress protest, the government could be overthrown.
Arab Spring: Black Hands Everywhere
In 2011, a political earthquake rocked the Arab world, the likes of which hadn't been seen in decades. On the surface, this sudden change looked like the result of internal causes, a spontaneous political and social movement by the Arab people. However, looking deeper, traces of Western interference are visible in many places. In some sense, it was a Middle Eastern color revolution. Without the intervention of Western powers, the intensity, force and damage of this revolution would not have been so great.
The first thing to note is that the Arab Spring was manipulated by nongovernmental organizations that received financial support from the West. During the Arab Spring movement, all kinds of NGOs, while appearing to act on their own, in fact utilized elaborately designed, simple and practical techniques, characteristics of well-planned organizations. The techniques used by protesters were the same as the strategies employed in Eastern Europe and Central Asia's color revolutions. For example, slogans used by protesters in each country were simple and highly provocative (such as, "The people want to bring down the regime," "Leave," "Respect," "It's over," "We should get to decide," and more). These were similar to strategies shared by Gene Sharp for color revolutions.* Several years ago, in countries like Egypt, Yemen, Algeria and Jordan, the same strategies were used, including slogans, cartoons, diagrams, flags, posters, communication methods, public assemblies, satirical essays, performances, political mourning, organized protests, speeches, contempt for police authority and ambiguous political ideology, etc.
During the process of ousting Egypt's political regime, nongovernmental organizations were indispensable. With the long-term support of external forces like the U.S., the number of NGOs in Egypt continually grew. According to the 2008 Egypt human rights development report, the number of NGOs in Egypt increased annually. Between 1964 and 1973, there were 316 new NGOs per year on average; from 2004 to 2006, that number had grown to 850. By 2007, the number of NGOs in Egypt had reached 21,500. Other statistics show that in 1900, Egypt had just 65 NGOs, in 1925 it had 300, in 1960 it had 3,195, in 1976 it had 7,593, and in 1990 that number grew to 12,832. In 2008, the number doubled, reaching 26,295.
These organizations seemed to mind their own business harmlessly. However, as soon as unrest developed, some of them jumped at the opportunity to make waves and add fuel to the fire. Egypt's 2011 January 25 Revolution seemed to be a "three noes" movement, with no organization, no leading principle, and no leader. However, it was, in fact, controlled and organized by all kinds of nongovernmental organizations. Organizations like the April 6 Youth Movement, the Coptic Youth Movement Organization, the Revolutionary Youth Union, the Alliance for Arab Women, the Egyptian Movement for Change, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, the Cairo Development Center, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Women's Development Association, the Helwan Region Development Foundation, the New Woman Foundation, the July 8 Youth Union and more, all actively planned, organized and participated in anti-government protest activities.
Among these, two organizations are particularly eye-catching. The first is the Egyptian Movement for Change, also known as Kefaya. What's notable about Kefaya is that its name (which means enough) and slogans are exactly the same as those of anti-government organizations from other countries that received training in Serbia. For example, in 2003, during Ukraine's Rose Revolution, the anti-government organization Kmara, whose name also means enough, received training from the National Endowment for Democracy, an American NGO. There's also the April 6 Youth Movement. That organization garnered close attention from the U.S. not long after it was founded. In December 2008, the organization's leaders were invited to travel to New York and participate in the Alliance of Youth Movements summit held by the U.S. Department of State. In the summer of 2009, the spokesman for the April 6 Youth Movement, Mohammed Adel, enrolled in training at the Center for Non-Violent Action and Strategies in Serbia alongside 14 Egyptian and Algerian activists. He publicly admitted to this in a documentary, and stated that through training, he became familiar with techniques for crowd organization and responding to police violence (how to engage with police and military, how to protect oneself and others, etc.). The leaders of the April 6 Youth Movement once promised Americans that they would overthrow the Egyptian regime before the 2011 election, and that promise came true.
In 2011, after Egypt's January 25 Revolution, the U.S. steadily increased its financial aid to nongovernmental organizations in Egypt. According to statistics, from March to June of that year, Egyptian domestic NGOs received a total of $175 million in aid; this was almost three times as much as all previous U.S. aid combined. On March 15, 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Egypt, making a special trip to Cairo's Tahrir Square to demonstrate support for Egypt's democratic movement. A leader of an Egyptian NGO admitted in February 2011 that "in Egypt's uprising, civil society played a definitive role. In the long term, [these organizations] will be everlasting partners to the U.S."
The second feature of note is that social media became a new channel for the West to stir up trouble. During the 2011 Arab Spring, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were widely used to communicate, organize protests and contact the outside world. Tunisia and Egypt were the first nations in the Arab world to undergo regime change, and these are precisely the two Arab nations with the largest telecommunications industries. This upheaval in the Middle East began with Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, and the catalyst of that revolution was WikiLeaks. In December 2010, WikiLeaks published American diplomatic cables which detailed corruption in the Ben Ali government, describing it as a "mafia." The cables also reveal that if conflict arose between the Ben Ali government and the military, the U.S. would not necessarily support him. Because of this, the regime was extremely weak. This essentially sent a powerful signal to Tunisia's anti-government groups. As soon as the contents of these documents were distributed online, the disclosure spurred widespread discontent among the public. Furthermore, an incident in Dec. 17, 2010 involving an unemployed university student's self-immolation was also disseminated over the internet, fully igniting the public's rebellious spirit, which, in the end, resulted in the fall of Ben Ali. Because of this, Tunisia's revolution is also called the "WikiLeaks revolution."
After the Arab Spring, Western countries actively added fuel to the fire, providing protesters with technical assistance, which caused the public protests to grow ever more intense. For example, to help protesters from Middle Eastern countries maintain contact while simultaneously avoid being tracked and captured, Western companies developed a kind of "Onion router," which could be used to connect to the internet without leaving a trace. With this kind of server, users can encrypt all kinds of information and go online anonymously. After this system was introduced by U.S. companies, it was provided for free to Iranian, Tunisian and Egyptian users. The goal was to allow dissident youths who wanted to challenge their own countries' regimes to evade government investigation and surveillance while engaged in political revolt.
To ensure that Tunisian and Egyptian activists could maintain contact with the outside world if internet access was cut off, Google and Twitter quickly introduced a service called "Tell Twitter." This application allows users to dial a number and leave a voicemail for free. This voicemail is automatically converted into a tweet, which is then sent to the internet. The RAND Corporation also spent years developing a nontraditional technique for political revolution called "swarming." These techniques were used to deploy large groups of young people, connected by the internet, to participate in fluid, hit-and-run style protests. Furthermore, the U.S. State Department has prioritized the research and development of an anti-censorship information system and invested over $30 million in the project. The U.S. is also developing a software program called "riot," which allows for a 100% independent wireless broadband network. It can provide wireless internet service without relying on any physical equipment; it doesn't require a telephone, cable or satellite connection. Therefore, its users can avoid any surveillance.
It's fair to say that it's only through the aid of internet technologies that the Arab protesters were able to organize, and cause the Arab Spring to ignite across the Arab world. As one protester stated, "We use Facebook to schedule the protests, and [we use] Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world." For this reason, the Arab Spring has also been called the "Facebook Revolution," the "Twitter Revolution," and the "revolution typed on keyboards."
The Arab Winter: Lasting Consequences of Nonviolent Revolution
Color revolutions use nonviolent methods; their organizers intentionally package themselves as a righteous resistance fighting for democracy, protecting human rights, and upholding the interests of civilians. They even create a "carnival-like" atmosphere at protests. However, in reality, color revolutions are like a knife that doesn't draw blood: subtle and subversive. To achieve their goal of seizing power, the masterminds behind color revolutions are always continuously fanning the flames. They go so far as to manufacture violent incidents in order to exacerbate hostility between the government and the public, continually putting pressure on the ruling party. In the end, the regime is overthrown, bringing the affected nation under the West's political and economic domain. Just in this way, color revolutions are meticulously disguised counter-revolutionary movements. The facts show that the Arab Spring has become the Arab Winter. The catastrophe that this revolution has created for the Arab world is no better than total regional war.
Economic hardships were the primary reason that the Arabic people rose up in revolt. During Egypt's January 25 Revolution, "bread, freedom, and social justice" was the slogan that protesters cried out. But since this "revolution," the economic situation is even worse than before. Many economic indicators have dropped below pre-revolution levels and haven’t returned. First, there's the continued reduction in foreign exchange and state revenue. According to official Egyptian data, Egypt's exports have gradually decreased year by year: from $27 billion in 2012-2013, to $26 billion in 2013-2014, and $22.3 billion in 2014-2015, finally dropping to $18.7 billion in 2015-2016. Secondly, the unemployment problem has become increasingly more severe. With political unrest after the 2011 revolution, large quantities of funds flowed out of the country, and the number of physical labor jobs was reduced. Official data show that the pre-revolution unemployment rate of 9.8% rose to 12.8% in 2015. Thirdly, inflation has continued to worsen. In 2016, Egypt's consumer price index reached 10.2%, and basic necessities increased substantially in price, badly hurting ordinary people. Based on data from the World Bank, the U.N. and the World Trade Organization, the Arab Strategy Forum concluded that the Arab Spring and ensuing political unrest cost the countries involved $830 billion. The Middle East is now more unstable and more hopeless than before the Arab Spring.
At the same time, the revolution opened a Pandora’s box, and the region is suffering from all kinds of latent conflicts that are now erupting. One example is more intense religious conflict. After the sudden upheaval in the region, religious political forces have gained strength. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood still holds power. The rise of these religious political forces has publicized and intensified the conflict between the secular and the religious. A second example is the reemergence of extremist terrorist forces. A new generation of terrorist forces represented by the Islamic State is destabilizing the territories of Middle Eastern sovereign states, and uniting extremist and terrorist forces, making the region into a hotbed of terrorist activity. In addition to this, the turmoil in the Middle East has turned many citizens into refugees. The population of the Arab region is only 5% of the world's total population, but refugees from the Arab world account for over 53% of all refugees worldwide.
Just like the saying "If Qingfu is not dead, then Lu's hardships have not ended," if hegemony and power politics still exist, there is a real risk of color revolution. Looking at the course of history, color revolutions of the modern era will basically extend along a path from Eastern Europe to West Asia, through Central Asia, and finally to East Asia and Southeast Asia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China became the key target of Western powers' "Peaceful Evolution" and "color revolutions." While engaged in our own self-development, we must strengthen our awareness of suffering and bottom-line thinking, and prepare to respond.
*Editor’s note: Gene Sharp was an American political scientist and founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to advancing the study of nonviolent action. He died in 2018.
The author, Tian Wenlin, is a researcher for the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.