Argument

As U.S. Injustices Rage, China’s Condemnation Reeks of Cynicism

Beijing is no ally to those fighting for justice—it’s simply defending its own injustices.

White House Protesters
People gather in the rain outside of the White House for a peaceful protest against police brutality on June 4. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Image

The protests across the United States triggered by the killing of George Floyd in police custody have inspired a wave of demonstrations around the globe. Protesters in Australia, Brazil, Germany, the United Kingdom, and many other countries are gathering en masse to denounce racism and police violence in the United States.

Amid this global support for the U.S. Black Lives Matter movement is an unusual new ally: the Chinese government. The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, published a cartoon portraying a White House tainted in blood and covered in tear gas. Standing on top of it is a crumbling Statue of Liberty, revealing her true identity as the police officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck and now faces murder charges for suffocating him to death. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, told reporters in a press conference, “The current situation reflects once more the severity of the problems of racism and police violence in the U.S.” Another bellicose spokesperson, Hua Chunying—known for her aggressive pushback against foreign criticism of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, Uighur concentration camps, and brutal police violence against Hong Kong protesters—joined the international outcry over Floyd’s death by tweeting, “I can’t breathe.”

Underneath Beijing’s commentary on the U.S. unrest is a deeply cynical voice that asks: If the U.S. authorities can do it, why shouldn’t we? Beijing’s criticism of the United States, however, differs from that seen around the globe. China’s critique does not stem from a genuine concern for universal human rights and the well-being of African Americans. The Chinese people have not been given any opportunity to protest in solidarity with Americans—or against the abuses of black residents in China itself. Anti-black racism remains rampant on the Chinese internet, untouched by censors who seek to crush opinions the government dislikes. Its motivation is simply to tell the United States, and everybody else, to stop criticizing China over its own human rights abuses. Underneath Beijing’s commentary on the U.S. unrest is a deeply cynical voice that asks: If the U.S. authorities can do it, why shouldn’t we?

Last Friday afternoon, Trump held a press conference to denounce China’s plan to devise a national security law to crack down on Hong Kong’s dissents. He threatened to end U.S. recognition of Hong Kong’s special trading status and to sanction Chinese officials hurting Hong Kong’s freedom. It is going to bring real damage to Chinese companies and wealthy elites who have been using Hong Kong as a back door to gain access to foreign capital, sensitive technology, and channels to relocate their wealth overseas.

That night, after Trump’s speech, major cities across the United States were engulfed in flames, National Guards were mobilized, and protesters clashed with riot police near the White House. The president reportedly hid briefly in a bunker. The Chinese authorities have been heavily criticized for their crackdown on Hong Kong protests, for the Uighur concentration camps, and for the arrests of rights lawyers. Beijing must be delighted to see the U.S. global reputation tarnished as its problems of racism and police brutality are brought into the spotlight. It would be surprising if Beijing did not seize the moment to criticize the double standards of the White House.

This cynicism underlines Beijing’s response to criticism of its bullying behavior in the international arena. When an international tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines against Chinese claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea in 2016, Beijing made it clear it would not abide by the ruling. It pointed out that the United States violated international law all the time and, hypocritically, hadn’t even acceded to the relevant U.N. convention itself.

Such rhetoric has grown common over the last few decades, as the Chinese Communist Party gradually abandoned its appeal for a more just social system and world order. Instead, the party has become increasingly explicit in referring to the global domination by Western powers as a license for its own imperial ambition. Jiang Shigong, an influential official scholar who advises the Chinese government on Hong Kong policy and global governance, even wrote recently that China should “absorb the skills and achievements” of the British and American empires to construct its own “world empire” for the sake of the Chinese people and the world.

For those in the United States and elsewhere who aspire for more equality, justice, and liberty, it is a mistake to see Beijing as an exotic progressive force with which to ally. Beijing points to the violence and injustice of the United States to exonerate itself from its own egregious violence and injustices. Police brutality and racism in the United States are unimaginably horrific. But U.S. authorities today are not using these protests as an excuse to arrest dissenting legislators and professors, to wholly outlaw peaceful assembly and rights organizations, to pressure companies and universities to fire employees sympathetic with the protesters, to arrest people for criticizing the government on social media, or to lock up 1 million minorities in reeducation camps. These abuses are routine in China and becoming routine in Hong Kong.

Perhaps global anti-racist protesters should take this opportunity to educate Beijing that the global support for Hong Kong protesters last year and the world’s denunciation of Uighur concentration camps do emanate from a genuine passion for universal human rights instead of some malicious intent to “hold back China”—an accusation that Beijing often levels against its critics. Global civil society criticizes the U.S. authorities as much as the Chinese government when either inflicts violence and racism against its people. This is the polar opposite of a double standard.

We are increasingly living in a world of competing bullies, who emulate one another in bad behaviors, domestically and internationally. To stop this race to the bottom in rights and justices, we should stand together to hold all bullies to the same standard of scrutiny, not letting them take advantage of others’ embarrassment to advance their repression.

Ho-fung Hung is the Wiesenfeld professor in political economy at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Protest with Chinese Characteristics and The China Boom.

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