How China’s Communist Party has used U.S. protests to its advantage

Foreign Affairs

The Chinese Communist Party has used Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. to “prove” to the Chinese people that their country's rigorous system, however nominally “unfree,” is superior to their fragile and fragmented American counterpart.

Chinese media using American protests
Illustration by Anna Vignet

For most of the past 31 years, the Chinese Communist Party has tried to bury the events of Tiananmen Square, 1989. In the immediate aftermath of June Fourth, the Party spun its decision to send in the military as protecting the nation from rogue and destabilizing forces. Over time, that rationalization gave way to forced national amnesia.

But last month, for the first time in many years, Chinese government officials were comfortable with directly referencing the Tiananmen protests. Hú Xījìn 胡锡进, chief editor of the inflammatory nationalistic tabloid Global Times, said that it would actually be advantageous for his propaganda work to address the Tiananmen incident, on its anniversary no less.

The countless images and videos of U.S. police clearing out protesters with tear gas, assaulting journalists with batons, tasering passersby, and plowing vehicles into crowds provided the CCP’s spokespeople a near-miraculous opportunity to justify their own government’s brutal suppression of mass protests.

By deploying “whataboutism,” Hu has suggested that governments all act alike, and that the CCP has no moral burden for its actions in 1989.

Hu, who himself protested at Tiananmen, is now a leading voice of China’s growing nationalism. He has said his participation in the Tiananmen protests was the naive mistake of a young fool.

On this year’s June Fourth anniversary, Hu made the same point on Weibo — China’s domestic version of Twitter — without mentioning Tiananmen, claiming, “America’s failure in containing the coronavirus and the recent contagion of disorder” invalidate “Chinese intellectuals’ idolization of their institutions” that were prevalent “at the start of the Reform Era” (hinting at Tiananmen). He posted the NYPD cruisers video for good measure.

Police brutality in the U.S., coupled with Trump’s threat to use military force, has severely undermined the legitimacy of U.S. criticism of police brutality in Hong Kong over the past year and a half. This is something the CCP already sought to do, but the current state of affairs in the U.S. makes its job much easier.

Nancy Pelosi called the Hong Kong protests “a beautiful sight to behold” last August, to which Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Huá Chūnyíng 华春莹 responded, “I wish there would be more of these beautiful sights in the U.S.” Now, with Hua’s “prophecy” having come true, Chinese state media is chirping louder than ever.

The Communist Youth Clique’s Weibo, which has become a bootcamp for young wolf-warrior ideologues in recent years, posted a picture of a burning Minneapolis mall and sarcastically captioned, “A…beautiful sight to behold?”

The intention goes beyond pushing the U.S. off its moral high ground: they are also reinforcing China’s “wolf warrior” spirit.

On June 1, Hua’s notoriously belligerent colleague, Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚, commented at a Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference that, “Black lives matter, their human rights need protection, and racism against minorities is a deeply entrenched problem in American society.” A few days later, Hua took this claim into the context of the CCP’s war against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo:

“Even under current circumstances, Mr. Pompeo is still full of lies and slanders, which is disheartening. It has been 57 years from MLK’s ‘I have a dream’ to George Floyd’s ‘I can’t breathe,’ yet equal rights for minorities in the U.S. is still but a dream, and America still has severe systemic racism… Some American politicians [Pompeo] kept ignoring their domestic problems, and instead pushed the blame to external factors. This is unethical and very unhelpful for America’s own problems. I hope he stops wasting precious time.”

But when it came to taking this righteous indignation to Twitter, it seems that Hua was, to quote LeBron James, “either misinformed or not really educated on the situation.” She comically confused #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter, while referring to the protesters as her “African friends.”

On a more systematic basis, the current protests in the U.S. are being used by the CCP to fuel its domestic propaganda. The protests in the U.S. are being used to “prove” to the Chinese people that their rigorous system, however nominally “unfree,” is superior to their fragile and fragmented American counterpart. This is true for all similar protests — especially ones that involve violence or damage to property — in other countries, such as Muslim riots in France, or indeed the protests in Hong Kong.

Outlets like People’s Daily and Xinhua News are also bombarding Weibo with cherrypicked scenes of violence and looting that are particularly visceral. The message is clear: protests, no matter how justified, no matter how initially peaceful, inevitably end up in violence and disorder instead of progress. In the end, what the CCP has sought to delegitimize over the years is not just the protests of Tiananmen and Hong Kong, but the very idea of protesting itself.