The US is a hypocrite. That is the message coming out of China’s propaganda machine this week, after the Trump administration vowed to bring nationwide protests over the killing of an unarmed black man to an end – by sending in the military, if necessary.
Unusually for international news in China, the protests have made it to the front pages of newspapers and taken up prominent slots on state television’s primetime newscast.
The messaging has been brutal: one cartoon from the People’s Daily showed the Statue of Liberty shattering as a policeman emerges Hulk-style from within.
The main argument in the Chinese editorials is that the US readily calls out what it perceives to be human rights abuses around the world – and especially so in China – but is a lot less reflective when such abuses happen at home.
A frontpage article in the China Daily was representative of the mood in calling for the US to eliminate racial discrimination and safeguard the lawful rights of its ethnic minorities. There was coverage of comments from Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian too. “Black lives matter and their human rights should be guaranteed,” he insisted.
Washington lawmakers came under heavy attack as well, especially those that had spoken out in support of civil unrest on the streets of Hong Kong last year. “When American politicians saw rioting in other places they referred to it as a ‘beautiful sight’. They fan the flames everywhere and work to ensure that the world is chaotic. But when their own ethnic minorities protest their legitimate rights they move quickly to forcibly suppress them. This is a disgusting hypocritical double standard,” state broadcaster CCTV claimed.
CNN’s own verdict was that “Trump’s protest response gives China a propaganda win”, given that the US leader’s tactics have been hard to reconcile with holding the moral high ground. On Monday the New York Time reported that the Trump administration had ordered “military units to rout those peacefully protesting police violence near the White House”, using chemical spray and rubber bullets (so Trump could have a photo opp at a church).
At least 12 journalists covering the protests say they have been injured by police projectiles. Molly Hennessy-Fiske, a LA Times reporter, wrote that what she experienced in Minneapolis was unlike anything she’d experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I have never been fired at by police,” she wrote on Saturday, “until tonight.”
The civil unrest in American cities also comes at a time when Washington has condemned the introduction of a new National Security Law in Hong Kong. When a State Department spokeswoman tweeted again in opposition to the new legislation, a counterpart in the Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately tweeted back “I can’t breathe” – echoing the last words of George Floyd, the man who was killed by Minneapolis police.
The murder and subsequent mishandling of the protests have another advantage for Beijing. Unlike the coronavirus crisis – where Trump has attacked the Chinese government for its initial handling of the outbreak – the causes of the current unrest in the US are rooted in American society and the systemic racism faced by many of its black citizens. Unlike the long-running trade and tech disputes between the two governments, it is hard for Trump to deflect the blame for this “crisis in America” (as CNN termed it this week) towards China.
That said, criticising the American leadership for doing too little to improve the lives of its black people is not without risk for Beijing’s propagandists. Only a couple of months ago officials in the southern city of Guangzhou launched an anti-coronavirus campaign that targeted many of the Africans living there. Hundreds of people were kicked out of their apartments in a situation that soon became a public relations disaster, warranting a series of rare public rebukes for Chinese ambassadors in Africa. Several African nations also called on the Chinese foreign ministry to end “forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatment meted out to Africans”. That episode is a timely reminder that the Chinese authorities are hardly immune to charges of racism too…
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