In George Floyd Protests, China Sees A Powerful Propaganda Opportunity
Protests across the United States in the wake of George Floyd's death have created an unlikely opportunity for China.
State TV has aired images of chaotic protest scenes during its widely watched evening news program, and offered searing commentary that has also highlighted the U.S. government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. "American politicians must ask themselves," one announcer said, "on what grounds do they spew their sanctimonious nonsense? Shouldn't they ask the American people for forgiveness?"
Newspapers in China have reported on looting and rioting, and editorials have blasted the U.S. government for failing to address America's racial inequality. On social media, officials and propagandists have trolled America with schadenfreude.
"I think the Chinese Communist propaganda apparatus is very grateful to have some burning cities in the United States right now, having had to suffer and feel deeply humiliated by the specter of Hong Kong being in a state of chaos," says Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society's Center for U.S.-China Relations.
Analysts say the party wants to deflect criticism over China's human rights record and paint a picture of America in disarray to make China look good in comparison.
U.S. support for anti-China protests in Hong Kong, which have been large and violent at times, is also in Chinese officials' crosshairs.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a news conference this week that "double standards" were typical of the U.S.
"Many people may want to ask this question: Why does the U.S. refer to those 'Hong Kong independence' and black-clad rioters as 'heroes' and 'fighters' but label its people protesting against racial discrimination as 'thugs'?" he said. "Why did the U.S. have so many problems with the restrained and civilized way of law enforcement by the Hong Kong police but have no problem at all with threatening to shoot at and mobilizing the National Guard against its domestic protesters?"
The issue of the use of military force to quell demonstrations is particularly relevant this week, as critics of the Communist Party mark the 31st anniversary of the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests around Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The U.S. slapped long-lasting sanctions on China afterward.
Beijing has long pushed back against U.S. criticism of its human rights record, calling it an internal matter. As relations between the two countries have soured, Beijing has become more emboldened, political and media analysts say.
Aynne Kokas, a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress who specializes in Chinese media, says propaganda depicting America in a state of chaos has significant impact in China.
"Domestically, it's an incredibly effective tactic," she says. "For casual viewers who pick up a newspaper or pick up state media, this will shape how they see things." The Chinese government tightly controls reporting and messaging in the news media, and foreign news is regularly censored and curtailed by a system of internet filters that block many outside websites.
And Schell says America's problems could play to China's advantage as competition between the two intensifies.
"I think it is harder for the U.S. to hold itself up as a model that is functional when it not only has got a pandemic that's run amok and it can't control, but when its cities are on fire with with race riots. So I think it is a kind of a net win for China," he says.
With the economy severely weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Communist Party is leaning more heavily on nationalism to boost its domestic image, says Xiao Qiang, with the School of Information at the University of California Berkeley.
"At this particular moment, they desperately need this patriotic nationalistic support [of] the government," he says. "At this moment, the Chinese government is particularly [in] need [of] this type of propaganda making impact among the Chinese public."
Even so, some of China's attempts at scoring points haven't always gone to plan.
On Saturday, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus sent a tweet urging "freedom-loving people" to hold the Communist Party to account for its plans to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong.
Her counterpart in China, Foreign Ministry information department head Hua Chunying, tweeted back, "I can't breathe" — a reference to some of George Floyd's last words with a policeman's knee on his neck.
State-controlled news outlets took to Chinese social media to gloat about Hua's retort, Xiao says, but some readers responded with: "I cannot tweet."
China's Great Firewall blocks Twitter and many other foreign websites, he says.
Chinese propagandists didn't miss a beat, though, he says. They simply deleted those complaints.
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