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.”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.”