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China gifted propaganda win as Trump’s protest response undermines US efforts to protect Hong Kong

Protesters running amok. Innocent citizens under siege. Outside actors engaging in terrorist acts. Police struggling to maintain control and in desperate need of reinforcements.

That was how Chinese state media portrayed anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year, dismissing calls for greater democracy and an investigation into police brutality by focusing on individual acts of violence and property damage. The widespread unrest, and the prospect of more this year, has been used to justify a new national security bill that will be imposed upon the city by Beijing in coming months.

Washington has fiercely criticized that bill, moving to strip Hong Kong of its special trading status with the United States and threatening sanctions against officials involved in implementing the legislation. Throughout the protests in Hong Kong last year, the US was consistent in its support of people’s right to take to the streets and have their voice heard, and that sporadic violence or illegality did not undermine the core demands or legitimacy of the movement.

Facing widespread unrest and public anger at home in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, the reaction from US President Donald Trump appeared markedly different.

In a barrage of tweets over the weekend, Trump called protesters “thugs,” accused “organized groups” of being behind the violence, blamed the media for fomenting unrest, called for the military to be deployed, and retweeted claims that those behind the unrest were “domestic terrorists.”

It was a response that might not have appeared out of place on the pages of China’s own government-controlled newspapers, and did not go unnoticed by state media pundits and officials in Beijing, some of whom have publicly delighted in watching the unrest unfold in the US, sarcastically calling for solidarity with protesters and pointing out the alleged hypocrisy of their American counterparts.

‘I can’t breathe’

On Saturday, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, tweeted “I can’t breathe” — among the final words uttered by Floyd before he died — along with a statement by the US State Department on Hong Kong. Hua, one of a new breed of increasingly vociferous Chinese diplomats, also shared an article by RT, the Russian state-run broadcaster, accusing the US of hypocrisy for its reaction to the respective protests.

Her colleague, Zhao Lijian, who has previously accused Washington of supporting “Hong Kong independence forces and violent radicals,” also shared tweets along the same lines, including one from Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist Chinese tabloid the Global Times, crowing that “the ‘beautiful sight’ defined by US politicians has eventually extended from Hong Kong to the US.”

“Now they can witness it by their home windows,” Hu wrote. “I want to ask Speaker Pelosi and Secretary Pompeo: Should Beijing support protests in the US, like you glorified rioters in Hong Kong?”

Washington is no stranger to accusations of hypocrisy, particularly regarding US support of democratic movements abroad while failing to tackle civil rights issues at home. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was often quick to point out the many societal issues plaguing the US, not least complaints about widespread racial discrimination and police abuse that are still ongoing today.

Speaking to CNN ahead of the most recent protests, Patrick Mahoney, a US-based activist and founder of the Christian Defense Coalition, said that “having traveled all around the world that is always a critique I hear from people, that the US government is willing to address human rights in other countries while we have issues in our own.”

“Generally speaking I want to believe that our government is as committed to human rights and freedoms and speaking against police brutality in the US as they are in Hong Kong,” said Mahoney, who has been involved in both protests in Hong Kong and those over Floyd’s death in the US. “But I don’t think that if we’re not committed to the same principles in America that we shouldn’t be speaking out.”

Awkward alliance

While support for Hong Kong is bipartisan in Washington, some of the most prominent backers of last year’s protests were Republican politicians, particularly Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, as well as administration officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Their support has been gladly accepted in Hong Kong, where some protesters last year took to flying the US flag and calling for Trump himself to intervene as they lobbied for the passage of a bill in support of the city’s political freedoms.

“Among conservatives, one joke is ‘what’s the difference between Hong Kong protesters and Democrats? Hong Kong protesters love America’,” Mahoney said. But he was critical of those who saw the movement in such simplistic terms, saying that the values they were fighting for were universal, not inspired by Washington.

“All we have to do is look to the Middle East to see what ‘American values’ have done to the region there,” he said. Hong Kongers may share in some ideals with the US, he added, but they weren’t waving the flag to be pro-America — rather “because they wanted America to stand with them in this struggle.”

Speaking to CNN last month, Promise Li, an activist and member of the Hong Kong-based Lausan Collective, said that “most protesters look at the US and Trump as purely a tactical thing. They personally would never subscribe to right-wing ideals, but what choice do they have.”

“It’s not about strong ideological allegiance to the right wing, it’s about what works in the moment,” he added.

This has created an awkward situation for many Hong Kong protesters, who may feel a sense of solidarity with those taking to the streets in the US, but are torn over potentially alienating their allies in Washington, almost all of whom are taking a hard line on the protests.

Cruz, who last year traveled to Hong Kong to voice his support for the opposition movement, has reiterated calls to designate Antifa — a loose term which can cover various left-wing protesters and anti-government activists — a “hate group.” Rubio has also denounced “Antifa terrorists” as being behind unrest in American cities, using language reminiscent of Chinese state media coverage of Hong Kong.

Rare agreement?

Critics have long accused President Trump of having authoritarian leanings, and more than a decade before running for office, he appeared to praise Beijing’s crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. When the dust clears after this weekend, Beijing may be hoping for more than just a chagrined Washington, but maybe even a degree of sympathy for its hardline position on Hong Kong.

Indeed, Hu Xijin, the Global Times editor, has used the American unrest as a way to encourage solidarity — not among protesters in Hong Kong and the US, but between the respective governments dealing with widespread demonstrations.

In an English-language video Sunday, Hu noted that some in China have cheered the protests “because the US government and US Congress supported the riots in Hong Kong.”

“However, the Chinese government has not shown any support for the riots in the US, I hope that Americans notice Beijing’s restraint. We have not tried to kick the US while it is down,” he said. “There are of course different reasons for the riots, but their similarities are overwhelming: they all defy the law, subvert order, and are destructive. Burning police stations, blocking roads, smashing shops, and destroying public facilities in Minneapolis and other places are exactly the same violence in the Hong Kong demonstrations.”

The ability of Washington to influence Beijing’s position on Hong Kong — which is in part founded on fear of outside influence in the city — was already severely limited. The Trump administration’s reaction to protests at home may have hurt its position even further.

CNN

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