John Larrysson Column: What do political words mean?

What do words like pro-China, democrat, left wing, moderate, republican or communist actually mean? The short answer is nothing. Very often when people use political labels the intended meaning has little or nothing to do with the dictionary definition of the word. This week I will suggest some guidelines to figuring out what people really mean.

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Whenever the word is the name of a political party the meaning is lost. Liberal party governments can be very conservative. Conservative governments can be progressive. While the word republican once meant being against having a king, it is not an issue in today's United States. People can own a factory in communist China. It is a standard joke that any country with the word democratic in its name is a dictatorship. Nationalists support their country, just like their opponents. People need to be judged by their actions not labels.

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The labels pro-China or pan-democrat imply that others are against their country/democracy. Someone can be patriotic and democratic or neither. In the abortion debate people call themselves either pro-life or pro-choice. Nobody wants to sound like they are against anything. So these labels are also meaningless.

When people talk about western democracy they are very unlikely to want Hong Kong to have the real thing. In the (often violent) beginnings of democracy in the UK and the US only those who owned land could vote and many positions were not elected. The corrupt ridings, or areas, people were (are) elected from were either gerrymandered districts (US) or rotten boroughs (UK). American presidents were, and still are, chosen by an election committee called the electoral college. The early United States and England of the same era were not democracies as we think of them today. These democracies have been slowly reformed over the generations.

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A protester should have a specific point they are protesting against and do not need to break the law or cause trouble. Sometimes protesters are just showing up for entertainment. A demonstration shows the government that people are worried about a problem. Demonstrations with too few people let the government know that very few people support the demonstrators’ views.

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Westerners often use the labels left wing and right wing to describe political parties and leaders. The names come from the National Assembly after the 1789 French revolution. People loyal to the king and the old ways sat to the right of the speaker's chair. Those who wanted great changes sat to the left. The moderates sat in the middle. These labels get confusing in Hong Kong. Communists are generally described as left wing; people who do not want much political change are usually described as right wing. So the Chinese government is both left and right wing.

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It gets very annoying when people argue with each other by attacking the other's label not what they actually do or say. Many people get tired of hearing things like:


You pan-democrats are all... [insert something about them being dangerous]



The pro-China camp are just... [insert something exaggerated about them being shoe shiners]


Ignore the names and labels. The best political leaders are the ones that make sure the garbage gets collected, children are educated, hospitals are staffed, crime is low, personal liberties are protected and there are few traffic problems. Great causes are often just words whose real objective is to get enough attention in the news to win the next election. The political names have little practical meaning.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.