Tea Leaf Nation
Ferguson, Staten Island, and the People’s Republic
China's cynical critique of U.S. racism can't obscure its problems at home.
Since a white police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on Aug. 9, human rights defenders in both the United States and abroad have criticized rampant police brutality and the apparent miscarriage of justice the tragedy has highlighted. Chinese authorities have wasted no time in pouncing, gleefully pointing out U.S. failures in the human rights arena. But the Chinese reactions to the outcry in Ferguson and its aftermath have revealed the troubling hypocrisy of a Chinese society oblivious to its own poor human rights records, entrenched anti-black racism, and severe ethnic inequality.
The events in Ferguson, along with subsequent grand jury decisions not to indict Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo, a Staten Island police officer whose chokehold led to the death of another black American named Eric Garner, have handed Beijing an opportune chance to reverse the direction of human rights-related criticism. Providing their own people with few civil liberties and even fewer political rights, Chinese authorities relish turning the tables, having themselves been frequent recipients of such criticism. State news agency Xinhua began a Nov. 26 editorial titled “A shameful scar in U.S. human rights history” by writing, “There are probably few other countries in the world as self-righteous and complacent as the United States when it comes to human rights issues, but the Ferguson tragedy is apparently a slap in the face.” On Nov. 28, Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily published an editorial which characterized the cause of Ferguson as “institutionalized discrimination,” concluded that a black president does not entail racial equality, and advised the United States to “end the illusion” that it can serve as the “benchmark” for human rights. Then on Dec. 9, several hours before the release of a U.S. Senate Committee report on the CIA’s use of torture, Xinhua cited both the report and events in Ferguson as evidence that the United States applies double standards in evaluating human rights.
China’s criticism, along with that by the United Nations and North Korea, is well-founded: the U.S. justice system has mishandled Ferguson and failed to hold itself to the standard by which it judges other countries. But the Chinese state is hypocritical in its censure, since China itself does not conform to those moral standards either. As Xinhua stated, “What the United States appears to be doing is defending its own national interests and wielding human rights issues as a political tool.” The irony is that the statement rings true for China too. In fact, Beijing has no more interest in advancing racial justice in the United States than it does in safeguarding substantive human rights domestically. But Chinese commentaries on American sins often serve other purposes, indulging in a rare chance to bash the United States in order to create the appearance of moral equivalence.
Ferguson has also brought forth a wave of Chinese responses marked by blatant or implicit anti-black racism, which is an evil by no means limited to the United States. On social media sites from the microblogging platform Weibo to the Facebook-like Renren, many users have applauded as “just” the grand jury decision not to indict Wilson, highlighting the Chinese stereotypes of black people as “lazy drug dealers” and invoking the N-word repeatedly. More worrying, similar strains of racist sentiment are visible in online communities of well-educated Chinese youth, like Zhihu, a popular question-and-answer site with over 10 million mostly young, college-educated users. In a Nov. 27 post up-voted more than 1,300 times, one Zhihu user wrote that “women, children, black people, and dogs” were the “the four ‘insurmountable moral planes’ for ‘imperialist America,’” off-limits if one intends to remain politically correct in the United States. These recent comments are only the tip of the colossal iceberg of Chinese anti-black racism. From the Nanjing anti-African protests in 1988 and 1989 to the current discrimination, distrust, and harassment facing Africans in China who live in high concentration in the southern provincial capital Guangzhou, many Chinese have shared and will continue to share anti-black sentiment. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has done little to ensure the safety and dignity of these African immigrants.
In fact, China is plagued by its own ethnic injustice. The dominant Han majority, composing 92 percent of China’s population, take for granted the party’s master narrative and fail to recognize their state’s oppression of ethnic minorities, which includes police brutality, rape, torture, suppression of religious and political freedom, denial of self-determination, and forced Sinicization. The state propaganda portrayal of the western Tibetan and Uighur regions of China as “backwards” dominates the Han consciousness, as opposition and dissent are overwhelmingly silenced. Compared to white Americans, the Han Chinese are even less likely to hear, let alone understand, the voices and demands of ethnic minority groups in China, systematically muted by the state in mainstream Chinese outlets.
This hasn’t escaped socially conscious Chinese, and some remarks on Ferguson have taken the opportunity to render an oblique criticism of the Chinese government. In a widely shared Nov. 28 post on Weibo, Sun Liping, a professor of sociology at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, complimented state broadcaster China Central Television’s (CCTV) coverage of Ferguson as “detailed, in depth, and full of humanity.” Sun went on to suggest that similar efforts should be expanded to CCTV’s coverage of domestic affairs.
In his April 1949 editorial for party members, then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai encapsulated a quality long-revered in Chinese history into one short phrase: “Be strict with yourself and lenient to others.” Today, that principled quality is rare, if not altogether extinct, in an international arena flush with hostility and hypocrisy. The focus on the great-power rivalry between the United States and China often distracts from the challenges present, and at times parallel, in both societies. If these two powers could examine the injustice and rights violations in their domestic spheres half as critically as they scrutinize one another, everyone would benefit.