China revels in US protests, sees unrest as PR opportunity

A protester raises a fist near a fire during a demonstration outside the White House over the death of George Floyd on May 31, 2020.
A protester raises a fist near a fire during a demonstration outside the White House over the death of George Floyd on May 31, 2020. AFP - SAMUEL CORUM

The unrest in the US over George Floyd’s death in custody has been seized by China and renewed discourse on “the end of the American era”. But Hong Kong’s defiant demonstration this week suggests Washington’s fall may not be Beijing’s gain.


The scenes unfolding on US streets this week, with federal and local law enforcement officers viciously cracking down on anti-racism protesters, have been particularly distressing for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists.

Since Beijing’s shock announcement last month of a plan to impose a new national security law on Hong Kong, attention was fixed on June 4, an important date on the semi-autonomous territory’s political calendar.

>> Read more on Beijing’s bid for a new security law on Hong Kong

For three decades, Hong Kongers have held massive candlelight vigils to mark the anniversary of China’s 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement, an event strenuously overlooked on the mainland.

This year, in what many viewed as a symbolic display of Beijing’s tightening control, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council was scheduled to vote on a contentious national anthem bill on June 4. The Legislative Council – dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers since the semi-autonomous city does not have universal suffrage – was expected to approve the bill, which it duly did following an opposition boycott of the vote and symbolic protests inside the chamber.

Tiananmen anniversary commemorations were also banned this year, officially due to the Covid-19 crisis, but the territory of 7.5 million residents were braced for a mass show of defiance. On Friday evening, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers knocked down barriers around Victoria Park, the territory’s landmark gathering point for demonstrations, to hold a candlelit vigil.

The June 4 event at Victoria Park was expected, some would say even scripted, although there was no certainty about the number of demonstrators it would attract. What was not anticipated this week was a showdown thousands of miles away, in the capital of “the land of the free”, on Lafayette Square, the public park right by the White House.

The scenes in Washington DC on Monday, of federal law enforcement officials cracking down on protesters demanding justice for George Floyd – an unarmed African American killed under police custody – to make way for President Donald Trump’s photo-op before a church sparked widespread criticism.

The nightly unrest on the streets of several US cities, fueled by heavy-handed security responses, has drawn condemnations from across the world, including the European Union and the UN’s human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet. The scenes of tear gas fumes engulfing streets, police firing rubber bullets, beating up and arresting protesters and journalists have been distressing for many Americans and non-Americans. But for many Hong Kong pro-democracy activists who have been staging protests against Beijing’s tightening control of the territory, they were distressingly familiar.

“The repression in the US looks exactly like the repression in Hong Kong. If you put pictures from the two places together, you can’t tell the difference,” said Dorian Malovic, Asia editor of French daily, La Croix, and author of several books on China. “It’s very unfortunate for Hong Kong people, for the civil rights movement and democrats. Unfortunately, the events in the US are neutralising what’s happening in Hong Kong. It gives credibility and the green light to Beijing to continue the repression. For Beijing, it’s perfect, it’s milk and honey.”

Raw meat for China’s ‘wolf warriors’

It’s also raw meat for Beijing’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomats named after a Chinese blockbuster about a commando who kills American baddies with his bare hands. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

>> Read more about China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats

Chinese diplomats have seized on the unrest in the US to hammer home CCP talking points of a violent, racist, imperialist power that has double standards and is structurally hypocritical.

“The racial discrimination against minorities is a social ill in the United States. What happened again reflects there are serious problems that should be urgently addressed,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing.

Zhao, a former Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, is widely regarded as the “alpha male” of the “wolf warrior” pack and has been retweeting a volley of taunts against the US, including a post by the editor of state-owned daily, Global Times, noting, “I want to ask Speaker Pelosi and Secretary Pompeo: Should Beijing support protests in the US, like you glorified rioters in Hong Kong?”

While Beijing views Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests as the product of “foreign interference,” its gloating diplomats overlook the fact that US envoys have not opposed Black Lives Matter protests across the world and have issued statements mourning Floyd’s tragic death and reiterating the US position that no one is above the law.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comment last summer that the Hong Kong protests were "a beautiful sight to behold" has been a particular gloating point, with the Global Times editor inviting US politicians to "enjoy this sight from their own windows".

Hua Chunying, another Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, took the schadenfreude to new heights when she retweeted a statement by US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus blasting the Chinese Communist Party for “flagrantly” breaking its promise “to the people of Hong Kong”. Hua added a three-word comment: “I can’t breathe”.

Those were Floyd’s last words as Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on the unarmed black man’s neck on a Minneapolis street. It was also the dying plea of New Yorker Eric Gardner in 2014, which became a slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement against racism and police brutality in the US.

American dream, racial nightmare

America’s systemic racism, born out of slavery and persistent police brutality against African Americans despite countless protests, investigations and policy recommendations, has long been the subject of intense national soul searching. In the George Floyd case, the extent of the brutality, captured on mobile phones and disseminated within minutes across the world, has deepened a mass anguish that was simmering over Trump’s divisive policies and compounded by the Covid-19 crisis.

The Trump administration’s disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic was already being compared to the US leadership role during earlier epidemics, such as Ebola and AIDS, with headlines proclaiming, “Another Virus Victim: The US as a Global Leader in a Time of Crisis”.

The latest unrest has renewed discourse on the “end of the American era,” amid questions of how the American dream of opportunity for all has failed the country’s most vulnerable and marginalised. Protests over the killing of yet another unarmed black man by a white US police officer have erupted across the globe, reflecting what critics called the erosion of America’s moral authority on the world stage.

It comes at an opportune time for Beijing as its global power grab in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak backfired with the unraveling of China’s “mask diplomacy” amid questions of cover-ups, exports of faulty health devices and a backlash against “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

>> Read more on the unmasking of China’s Covid-19 ‘mask diplomacy'

Concerns over Beijing’s handling of the outbreak and its hold on the World Health Organization (WHO) and other UN agencies resurfaced this week when the Associated Press reported Tuesday that China failed to share the genetic map of the virus more than a week after it was decoded.

While the UN health agency was publicly praising China’s early public health response, internal documents and emails reveal immense frustration among WHO representatives over Beijing’s obfuscations with a senior WHO official exasperatedly proclaiming, “they’re giving it [the genetic code] to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV,” referring to the state-owned China Central Television.

>> Read more on China’s hold on the WHO and UN agencies

‘Sit this one out’

The latest unrest in the US has given Beijing a fresh chance to seize the narrative by portraying a violent implosion of a declining power turning its back on the magnanimity and multilateralism that defined the postwar global order. China views itself as a natural replacement, ready to extend its strategic influence with its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and strengthen its hold on multilateral institutions that have been a favourite punching bag for Republican US presidents.

“That’s what [Chinese President] Xi Jinping tends to believe. He started to be convinced about the American decline a few years ago, since around 2014. But I think they miscalculated that it was time for China to be more assertive, to be more aggressive based on the assumption of an American decline, which is overstated,” said Malovic. “Despite the problems in the US – the economic and racial inequalities, the lack of social security, healthcare – it’s still impossible to deny the US is still the most powerful country militarily and in terms of soft power, even with Trump. The people are against Trump, he is not overwhelmingly popular and the world can see that Trump’s influence looks weak, but America is still very strong.”

The domestic opposition to Trump, institutional and political, has dominated world attention for four years and contrasts sharply with the lack of dissent against the single ruling party in China. Beijing’s assertions of US hypocrisy, for instance, faces routine push-back on social media platforms such as Twitter, which is banned in China.

When foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua’s posted her “I can’t breathe” tweet, responses included photographs of security officials cracking down on Hong Kong protesters with messages such as, “Can Hong Kong breathe?” and clips of Chinese tanks rolling down Tiananmen Square.

China’s track record on racism, from Han Chinese domination to its treatment of ethnic and religious minorities such as Uighur Muslims and Tibetans, also comes up for scrutiny. When the foreign ministry retweeted the African Union’s call on the US to “intensify efforts” to eliminate discrimination, with a message on China opposing “all forms of racism,” responses included, “Dude, sit this one out,” with hashtags ranging from banned religious group Falun Gong to Free Tibet.

Another response included, “I didn’t see this tweet when Africans were being discriminated against in Guangzhou,” referring to the targeting of Africans in the southern Chinese city during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year. Beijing has not apologised for the incidents and has described them as a series of "misunderstandings".

Neither Washington, nor Beijing

But if China does not have the moral authority or governance system to convince the world of its global leadership status, US power has unquestionably been on the decline and a talking point that predates the Trump presidency.

In a May 2014 column, Edward Luce, the Financial Times chief US commentator, noted that Washington was proving inept at transforming its Soviet containment strategy during the Cold War to a “dual containment” of China and Russia. “The demand for US leadership remains strong. But America’s ability to sustain a dual containment strategy is an open question,” wrote Luce.

During his two terms at the White House, Barack Obama signaled a US withdrawal from the costly conflicts in the Middle East to a “pivot to Asia” that would entail more US military and economic engagement with the Asia Pacific region. The strategy failed in both, the Middle East and Asia Pacific regions with the Trump administration further accelerating the decline of US global leadership.

The result, according to Malovic, has been a dangerous uncertainty and absence of global leadership since the European Union remains too divided to coalesce on a China strategy.

“The big problem about the way Trump works is that with him in the White House, nobody wants to chose between China and the US. If there was no Trump, the world would be with America against China,” said Malovic. “The world’s two biggest powers are fighting like children in a schoolyard. The credibility of both, Washington and Beijing, is low. Trump is going crazy, Xi Jinping is already crazy. They’re neutralising each other and neither is credible for the rest of the international community.”




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