Chinese state media is already using Capitol riots in its anti-U.S. narrative

January 7, 2021, 10:16 AM UTC

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Hundreds of supporters of President Donald Trump on Wednesday laid siege to the U.S. Capitol building to protest Congress’s certification of November’s presidential election. The astonishing scenes of violent rioters overtaking police to occupy the Capitol’s hallowed halls rocked the globe, with world leaders expressing alarm at how lawlessness had engulfed the seat of American democracy.

“Disgraceful scenes in U.S. Congress,” said U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “The United States stands for democracy around the world, and it is now vital that there should be a peaceful and orderly transfer of power.”

In China, the central government did not issue a formal statement regarding the Capitol Hill events, but reporters asked Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about the riot at a daily press briefing on Thursday. She said the incident should spark “deep reflection” among U.S. lawmakers regarding how they discuss the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, suggesting that the U.S. is hypocritical in denouncing Beijing’s crackdown in the city while it struggles with its own unrest at home.

That same message appeared in Chinese state-run media’s coverage of the Capitol riots, indicating that the ugly episode in Washington is already fitting neatly into Beijing’s anti-U.S. narrative.

The Chinese state-run Global Times tabloid on Thursday published an article compiling Chinese Internet users’ reactions to the unrest. It highlighted comments that described the U.S. events as “karma” and “retribution,” and others that called the Capitol storming evidence of “the falling of the beacon of democracy.”

The Global Times also tweeted a series of side-by-side photos of two events: the siege of the U.S. Capitol and a July 2019 incident in which pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong broke into the city’s Legislative Council building. In the caption, the tabloid questioned when U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—who previously expressed support for Hong Kong’s protests—would “say the same about the recent developments in Capitol Hill.” (Rioters in Washington, D.C., stormed the Capitol seeking to overturn the results of a legitimate election, whereas Hong Kong protesters entered LegCo calling for democratic reforms like universal suffrage.)

A Thursday article covering the riots from Beijing News, a state-owned newspaper, was headlined, “The U.S. has fallen into disarray.”

The almost gleeful coverage of turmoil in the U.S. is a trademark of China’s state-run media’s eagerness to undermine the U.S.’s authority on the world stage at a time when China’s government has received international condemnation for political suppression in Hong Kong. When Black Lives Matter protests swept across the U.S. this past summer, China’s state-run outlets accused U.S. politicians of “hypocrisy” for expressing support for protests in Hong Kong while condemning the U.S. demonstrations.

Other articles covering the tumult in the Capitol focused on criticism of the outgoing U.S. President. The Paper, a popular digital media outlet that enjoys more editorial leeway than its state-run peers, published an analysis of why Trump is still contesting the election results and encouraging his supporters to protest the results even though there’s no chance of overturning them.

According to the article, Trump is obsessed with portraying himself as a strong leader and believes in the “law of the jungle” where the weak are the prey of the strong, a common sentiment—the article says—among white elites from an “Anglo-Saxon cultural background.” These and other factors mean he will not accept defeat, according to the article.

The sensational coverage in China’s more nationalistic outlets and on social media contrasted with the more straightforward, subdued tone of other state media sources. Xinhua News, China’s state-run wire service, tacked the news onto the bottom of its website, with stories that provided a tick-tock rundown of the day’s events. On CGTN, the country’s English-language, state-backed broadcaster, the Capitol events led the website with similar, straightforward stories.

At the same time, CGTN took the opportunity to take a jab at the U.S. government and alluded to the “double standard” argument employed by other state-run media.

“The whole world is looking at what’s going on in Washington, D.C., with “shock and disbelief,” Li Shouen, an editor at CGTN, wrote on the website’s home page. “It’s unclear how it will end, but it mustn’t be forgotten that the U.S. itself invented the tactics that are now used there.”