When the Western media depicts Chinese media coverage of the ongoing social unrest in the US as a “propaganda win” with a mixture of glee for the Western media’s double standards on the Hong Kong protests, which has now backfired on its own, few of them are taking a deeper look into why China is closely watching these mass protests fueled by anger toward the murder of an African-American by US police. A yearlong confrontation on all fronts has seen the world’s two largest economies reach the tipping point while each social movement has become a window of opportunity for the Chinese public to deepen their understanding regarding the “true face” of the United States of America.
Media outlets including Reuters, CNN and the New York Times are now viewing the reaction in China toward the widespread unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death as a “propaganda win” as it has become a way of criticizing the hypocrisy and arrogance of the Trump administration by comparing its response to the Hong Kong protests in 2019 and the ongoing unrest in the US. By citing some analysts, Reuters pointed out that the Chinese media coverage of the US protests echoed their reporting on the COVID-19 epidemic in the US, which reflected an incompetence and failure of leadership that led to a very sad milestone with the death toll exceeding 100,000.
However, such a “shallow” and “unilateral” interpretation of public opinion in China failed to touch upon the actual reasoning behind such unprecedented attention that Chinese people have attached to the chaotic protests in the US, as some Western media have ignored a rapidly changing collective mind-set characterized by growing criticism over American democracy, a realistic view on US-China relations and more balanced assessments of the escalating rivalry between the two nations, observers said.
Some of the Chinese netizens began closely watching the George Floyd protests on the same day when the US government announced to impose sanctions over China’s upcoming national security legislation for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The US announcement sparked outrage among the Chinese public as it is seen as blatant foreign interference in China’s domestic affairs.
The keywords “US social unrest” were ranked the No.1 topic on the Chinese Twitter-like Weibo platform as of press time on Tuesday, and some netizens compared the video footage from protest scenes in US cities with those from the Hong Kong protests in 2019, as certain US officials hailed riots in the Chinese city as a “beautiful sight to behold” but when similar a scenario occurred in their own soil, they urged police to brutally crack down on it.
Zheng Liang, a research fellow on communication and human rights at the Guangdong-based Jinan University, told the Global Times that Chinese people pay close attention to the US riots since it “triggers” memories of US politicians and the Western media’s biased reporting regarding Hong Kong.
“A great majority of Chinese don’t support rioting or violence. They just detest such blunt double standards – They all remember how hard the US politicians and Western media had worked to defend the Hong Kong rioters since last year. However, when similar riots happened in the US, they all see the US government’s tough stance and media’s reports on the incidents, which are in sharp contrast to those in Hong Kong,” Zheng said.
Chinese paying such intense attention toward the ongoing protests in the US could also be interpreted as a collective emotional outburst in response to attacks and smear campaigns launched by US politicians toward China, the expert added.
Over the past few months, US politicians including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s trade advisor Peter Navarro and even some Republicans like Tom Cotton have launched a choreographed smear campaign against China in diverting domestic public attention away from the Trump administration’s failure in its mishandling of COVID-19. Even in a recent poll, the US was voted as “the most disappointing country” among Chinese respondents.
Social movements and conflicts in American society have been serving a window of opportunity for Chinese observers on US studies to understand the country’s political spectrum, controversial social issues including racial and gender discrimination, unaddressed long-standing problems and increased political polarization.
The recession of the US has been a long-term process, and problems regarding racial discrimination can’t be eradicated as it occurs every few years. However, unlike former US presidents who always sought reconciliation instead of confrontation on the question of racism, Trump takes a tough stance therefore further inflaming the conflict, Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times on Tuesday.
“For us studying US politics, it’s also extremely rare to see such leadership that directs the country toward divergence, which is worthy of further observation,” he said.
In the past, when massive civil unrest or rioting took place in the US, such as the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the 1999 Seattle WTO protests and the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, Chinese people didn’t direct a lot of attention toward these incidents, as they thought the US was too far away from China mentally, and many people still had an overall flawless image of the US, and the China-US relationship was not as bad as it is today, said Chinese observers.
Some even saw such street protests as a “superior aspect of democratic countries,” which had been further recognized among the public. However, now Chinese people don’t see so-called freedom and democracy coming from them anymore, some observers noted.
Also, today’s use of new communication methods and information technology has become an accelerator for social events to go viral. This attracts the attention of not only mainstream media but also the new media, as short videos can be uploaded and quickly shared among hundreds and thousands of people not only overseas but also in China.
Entering “Occupy Wall Street” as keywords into a Chinese search engine, 16,177 pieces of information pop out from mainstream media, including people.com and media outlet guancha.cn introducing the background of the movement and its progress.
Upon putting “US riots” as keywords into a Chinese search engine, more than 897,196 pieces of information emerged, ranging from reports on the death of George Floyd to the expanding riots in the US on mainstream media and We-media.
Compared with previous reports of US protests or racial discrimination, reports regarding the ongoing riots in the US have mounted in number and more Chinese netizens joined in by commenting on the incident via social media.
Taking the Ferguson unrest for example, by putting “Ferguson unrest” into a search engine in China, information from We-media pops out alongside some mainstream media outlets, including China Central Television reports.
The Ferguson unrest referred to protests and riots beginning on August 10, 2014, the day after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson
“People in China used to pay limited attention to reports of racial problems as they seem a little far away from their daily life. China has never been a colonial power, and there are little racial issues that emerge in Chinese society,” Zheng said.
Zhang Yiwu, a professor from Peking University, told the Global Times on Tuesday that Chinese people have always been paying attention to what is happening in the US, a global superpower, especially with China-US ties being strained in recent months. “Chinese people are also curious about what the US would do when confronted with similar riots happening in Hong Kong since last year.”
Aside from gloating, more Chinese people are surprised and also confused about how the US could descend to such a low level since it currently has both the largest coronavirus death toll and a rioting on such a scale re-emerging after 50 years. Nothing has changed in regards to racial problems and the social divide. Human rights, social equality and democracy… all the things that the US used to boast about are nothing but a bubble poked by reality, Zhang said.
Changing ties, mind-sets
For some Chinese people who closely watch the US social unrest, the safety of their children, relatives and friends who are now in the US has become an issue preoccupying them at the moment, especially as the COVID-19 epidemic has not been completely contained in the country.
“It’s not about making jokes regarding Americans [when we watch the news everyday]. We simply care about how our daughter would go through this difficult time as she lives alone in New York City,” a mother in her 50s who resides in Central China’s Hubei Province told the Global Times, as her daughter now works in a consulting firm in New York, and has to follow the curfew alerts every day.
The close relations between China and the US have been emphasized by frequent people-to-people exchanges, as there are on average 17,000 people who travel between the two countries every single day and flights connecting the two would take off and land every 17 minutes, Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, was quoted as saying in media reports in 2019.
Another reason for the Chinese public paying such unprecedented attention to the US riots is that “China and the US now are very much intertwined,” Lü Xiang, a research fellow on US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, told the Global Times on Tuesday.
“Many middle-class Chinese might find the US even more familiar than many of China’s neighboring countries, as they have traveled to the US many times and even sent their children to study or work in the US, so they also care about the situation,” Lü said.
But these people, who used to look up to the US, are now rethinking and reevaluating their judgments on America, he noted, “especially those people who sent their children to the US, they are asking themselves: Is the US really a better place to study and work? Because there is no security, the government is failing to handle both the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest.”
Olivia Liang, 22, a Chinese student who is studying at a Los Angeles-based university, said that “the US’ image is collapsing in our minds, at least among people like me. Many friends of mine who are also studying and working in the US said if they knew beforehand that the US was so dangerous, the president so incompetent, and the society so divided and xenophobic, they wouldn’t have chosen to come here. Many of them want to go home.”
“2020 could be first year of the collapse of the US’ collective image among the Chinese public,” Lü said.
(In association with Global Times)