Hong Kong protesters being called 'cockroaches', a term formerly used on Jews & slaughtered Rwandans

Analysts say it's a form of dehumanisation to justify inhumane treatment.

Kayla Wong | Matthias Ang | November 25, 2019, 01:34 AM

Protesters in the Chinese Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong have had many names bestowed upon them over the past six months of protests.

Protesters have been called "rioters", "thugs", "hooligans", "terrorists", and "cockroaches" by their critics.

Not human, just roaches

Among these terms, "cockroaches" is probably one of the most commonly used by detractors on the participants of the movement.

It has been employed multiple times to various effect, by both the Hong Kong police officers and Chinese state media to refer to demonstrators.

People in Singapore who are less sympathetic to the protesters' cause, have also been guilty of using the term too.

On the other hand, demonstrators have called the police "dogs".

While the exact intention behind the use of such a term is not known, analysts say referring to humans as "roaches" is a convenient act of dehumanisation.

The name-calling reinforces the perception that these people do not deserve to be treated like humans, and so do not need access to the same human rights afforded to all people.

The history of name-calling is fraught with examples that ended very badly.

Here are some of those instances in history where large groups of people were collectively called "cockroaches", as symbolic violence gave way to the perpetuation of more physical violence, to the detriment of entire societies.

More importantly, name-calling from all sides of a conflict is a prelude to violence, as it encourages an escalation of open tit-for-tat and the fomenting of greater, full-on unrest, as well as retaliatory action.

Hutus in the Rwandan genocide

In 1994, about 800,000 Rwandans, mostly of the Tutsi minority, were murdered in a genocide over the course of 100 days.

Prior to the genocide, the use of dehumanising language had already been entrenched in the country's sociopolitical discourse as far back as 1959, when a Hutu political leader called for the extermination of the Tutsi "vermin", according to The Atlantic.

Youths gather behind the fence of a refugee camp May 3, 1994 at the border of Rwanda and Tanzania. Hutu refugees have fled to Tanzania across the Akagara River in order to escape reprisals by Tutsi rebels. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Liaison)

This set the precedent for the Rwandan government to repeatedly stir up nationalist sentiments against the Tutsis, which eventually led to a senior politician in the then-ruling Hutu party denouncing the country's Tutsis as "cockroaches" at a rally in 1992, Foreign Policy reported.

Anti-Tutsi propaganda was also fuelled by a Rwandan radio station, RTLM, which was allied with the then-ruling Hutu government.

It had described the Tutsis as inyenzi (cockroaches) and inzoka (snakes).

Such language is said to be part of the dehumanisation process, where the Hutus feel less remorse about killing them.

Nazis during the Holocaust

The Washington Post (WP) reported that the use of the term "cockroaches" was also featured in Nazi political rhetoric against Jews, along with the imagery of "rats" and "snakes".

It was a point that activist Joshua Wong picked up in August, when he took to social media to slam the police for using such language.

David Livingstone Smith, a professor of philosophy at the University of New England, told WP that the repeated use of the term "cockroach" could eventually lead to a "deeper kind of genuine dehumanisation".

"You call people cockroaches a lot, you start thinking that they are subhuman," he said.

Imperial Japanese Army to the Chinese

Japanese soldiers, during the time of the Second Sino-Japanese War, used the term "shina" to refer to China, and "shina-jin" to refer to the Chinese people.

The term "shina pigs" was used as well.

Interestingly, this term has been used by pro-independence Taiwanese against the pro-Beijing political party Kuomintang and its supporters too.

Members of Japan's notorious Unit 731, which conducted unspeakable human experiments on Chinese civilians, referred to the Chinese as inanimate objects, and called them "logs", or maruta in Japanese.

By calling their victims "logs", it was thought that killing them was as easy as cutting down a tree.

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Top image adapted via @studioincendo & Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images