China and Russia are using the fallout from the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer to try to diminish the appeal of democracy.
“The whole world has watched as things unravel in the U.S.,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday. “American politicians had better get their own house in order.”
That sneer accompanied a complaint about past U.S. condemnations of China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, as Beijing seeks to tighten control over the former British colony and trading center in violation of international agreements. Yet the comment, with its focus on how other countries view the American unrest, suggests how the U.S.-China rivalry features a renewal of the ideological competition between the United States and a communist rival.
“They obviously have very different interests, but their unifying interest is an anti-American message,” Bret Schafer, a disinformation and media expert at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said of Russian and Chinese state-backed messaging. “They are certainly having some impact at turning audiences away, repelling them from the West.”
That effort is aided by the footage of a police officer kneeling on the dying Floyd and of law enforcement interfering with journalists covering the protests and riots that have taken place over the last week.
“I am worried about the increase of violent incidents against journalists covering [George Floyd protests in the United States] by the police and demonstrators,” the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Harlem Desir, an intergovernmental media watchdog, tweeted Tuesday. “I call on the authorities to exercise restraint and to ensure that journalists can report safely on public protests.”
The controversy has put the Trump administration on defense even in a forum such as the OSCE, where U.S. officials are accustomed to condemning Russian human rights abuses and repression of protesters. And President Trump’s threat to deploy U.S. military forces to put down the protests if state governors struggle to do so further complicates such diplomacy.
Chinese communist officials point to the need for order and physical security to justify the use of high-tech surveillance, censorship, and other human rights abuses. The regime’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic exposed the weakness of such authoritarianism, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese dissidents, but the riots are a gift to Chinese propagandists struggling for influence in other countries.
“Part of the narrative of the Chinese is implicitly, our authoritarian system has certain advantages in dealing with unrest,” said Evan Ellis, an expert in Chinese influence in Latin America at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. “The COVID crisis and the response has opened up a whole new competition of ideas of whose system is better suited to protect people’s interests in this dangerous and interdependent world.”
The unrest is the rare issue over which Russian and Chinese officials can posture as fellow travelers with Western officials. Chinese officials, facing years of condemnation from the U.S. over Beijing’s enslavement of Uighur Muslims in political re-education camps, have sought to claim moral high ground during the Floyd controversy.
“China has a sense of right and wrong,” Zhao said. “We are opposed to all violent and illegal activities. We also hope that the U.S. will not stay indifferent to the issue of racial discrimination.”
The barbs exchanged by American officials and Chinese diplomats in recent months, as the pandemic paralyzed Western societies before the eruption of U.S. anger over Floyd’s death, could function as early salvos in the struggle for the hearts and minds of leaders and societies in developing countries around the world.
“Really not since World War II, other than within authoritarian systems themselves, has there been any fundamental question of whether there was a justification for authoritarianism,” said Ellis. “Suddenly, there is this global reevaluation of [the question], is there something to be gained from authoritarianism? Is there something to be gained from population control? Is it worth giving up a little bit of individual freedoms to have order and security?”