When massive protests over the killing of George Floyd—and countless other Black people—at the hands of police began breaking out across the United States, the glee among Chinese propagandists was practically palpable.
Here was the United States, long China’s fiercest critic on its abysmal human rights record, finally facing a gigantic and public reckoning for a history of systemic racism that stretches back to the nation’s founding and beyond.
The fact that the U.S., which only months ago had infuriated Beijing with its criticism of heavy-handed crackdowns on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, was now seen employing similar tactics against its own citizens, was merely icing on the cake.
“Black lives matter and their human rights should be guaranteed. Racial discrimination against minorities is a chronic sickness in American society,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in a press conference on June 1.
The Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily said in an article that George Floyd’s death showed "a true crisis in democracy and human rights,” and took aim at the U.S.’s response to the Hong Kong protests, saying American politicians’ "double standards reveal their hypocrisy.”
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, clearly a quick study when it comes to the norms of a platform long banned in China, took to Twitter to troll the U.S. State Department, posting a screenshot of a past tweet voicing support for Hong Kong protesters alongside the caption, “I can’t breathe” — George Floyd’s last words.
But while China seems determined to seize on the moment to call out the United States’ shameful history of institutional racism, one might be forgiven for wondering whether the growing power has a leg to stand on.
Well, it’s complicated.
First off, China’s shocking recent track record of targeted abuses against its own ethnic minorities makes it a dubious champion of racial harmony.
Since 2017, the Chinese government has detained over one million Uighur and other Muslim minorities in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang under the guise of what it describes as counter-terrorism efforts, drawing accusations that it’s actually engaged in a form of ethnic cleansing.
Government documents leaked in 2019 revealed the camps to be part of a comprehensive repression of Uighur minorities, whom the authorities view as a threat to social stability. Accounts from detainees detail horrifying stories of physical and mental abuse that extend beyond the walls of the re-education camps, which have sought to force Uighur assimilation. Even after inmates are allowed to leave the camps, they remain under intense surveillance from government officials.
When it comes to China’s treatment of Black people more specifically, recent incidents suggest that its record at home isn’t as rosy as its PR putsch would indicate.
Earlier this year, for instance, Guangzhou authorities were called out for their mistreatment of Black people amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
When African officials and ambassadors confronted their Chinese counterparts about the gross mistreatment of African nationals in Guangzhou during the coronavirus pandemic, their claims were either dismissed or met with tepid responses.
"It is harmful to sensationalize isolated incidents,” the Chinese Embassy in Zimbabwe tweeted. "To misrepresent this as tensions between nations and races is dangerous."
On April 14, the nationalist state-run tabloid Global Times ran a story entitled “Small rifts don’t negate Chinese kind efforts to African countries,” an attempt to downplay the diplomatic scandal and highlight China’s purported charity towards its African partners.
The response raises questions of its own about debt diplomacy and Africa’s asymmetrical economic dependence on China, which has sought to expand its sphere of influence on the continent. Perhaps given the high stakes involved, the African officials eventually backed down.
The Guangdong provincial government, for its part, belatedly issued a directive urging all business sectors to treat locals and foreigners equally. A Xinhua story announcing the directive made no mention of the racist incidents that precipitated the move, but pointedly noted that a number of representatives of African countries "praised the measures."
With such incidents in mind, it’s hard to overlook the irony of China’s condemnation of racial discrimination amid the George Floyd protests that have erupted across the U.S. and the rest of the world.
"It does seem clear that Chinese state-linked media are drawing a strong narrative connecting the protests with broader failures of [the U.S.] and democratic systems,” Elise Thomas, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), told VICE News.
As it turns out, this narrative isn’t exactly new. According to Mike Zi Yang, a senior analyst at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, America’s shortcomings on race have long been a salient theme in China’s denunciation of the U.S. on the international stage.
During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Mao Zedong on more than one occasion voiced his support for Black Americans, framing the racial protests of the day as a symptom of class and ideological struggles.
“The storm of Afro-American struggle taking place within the United States is a striking manifestation of the comprehensive political and economic crisis now gripping U.S. imperialism,” Mao declared in 1968.
“Racial discrimination in the United States is a product of the colonialist and imperialist system.”
More than 50 years later, the Chinese account of racial tensions in the U.S remains strikingly similar.
And just as the American civil rights movement provided ammunition for Mao’s socialist revolution in the 1960s, today’s Black Lives Matter protests serve a convenient distraction from China’s own handling of race.
“Perhaps by emphasizing… racism in [the US], the Chinese government is trying to brush over its own society’s problems with racism,” Yang noted.
“These events and the narratives spinning out of them will help to distract attention from things the Chinese government wants to sweep under the carpet, such as the recent anti-Black racism scandals in China or the Hong Kong protests, and gives them a chance to position China's political system as a more stable and better alternative to democracy,” ASPI’s Thomas said.
Indeed, a cursory look at Chinese discourse on the massively popular — and heavily censored — microblogging platform Weibo indicates that China’s messaging is playing well at home. It also suggests that, as in the U.S., the darker corners of the Chinese internet are awash in toxic racism.
“After the judgement [of the policemen involved in George Floyd’s killing], they’re going to continue discriminating against people of color. America will continue with its harmonious facade,” one comment on Weibo reads.
“From the appearance and color of these policemen, this isn’t even a case of racial discrimination. It’s a matter of managing violent Black people with violence,” reads one of the top comments about the four policemen who have been charged for their role in killing Floyd.
“White people have too much time on their hands,” another commenter said of the recent protests. “It’s none of your business, yet you’re blindly going along with the mayhem. Black people should just scram back to their home in Africa. Their existence has no significance in society. I don’t pity Black people.”
Meanwhile, Black people in China recently described to VICE News incidents of casual racism they experienced there.
One Beijing-based British national of African descent, who declined to be named for fear of professional repercussions, said that over some seven years of living in China, on several occasions she found herself the target of racial slurs from locals who assumed she didn’t understand Mandarin.
“They might have whispered something under their breath, such as heigui, which essentially is… the N-word,” she said.
She also described seeing parents try to scare their children into obedience with the threat that “a Black man is gonna come and get them.”
“From a community perspective, it feels a bit like a slap in the face,” she said of China’s handling of recent racist incidents. “We didn't get even a public apology for the events in Guangzhou.”
While being in Chinese academia has shown encouraging signs that China’s younger generation is joining a “global conversation” about racial discrimination and anti-Blackness, she added that she also understood that her experience isn’t necessarily representative of the Black community in China.
She also described strangers, apparently unaccustomed to seeing Black people, approaching her to touch her hair or pet her skin, or to ask to take photos with her.
Cordell Fantroy, an African American living in China, told VICE News that he had experienced similar treatment, and added that as far as the propaganda goes, he “generally would prefer that people wouldn't take advantage of a situation like that.”
However, he was also careful to weigh his experience in China against his experience of racism in America.
“I've experienced real racism,” Fantroy said. “I grew up in upstate New York; I've experienced racism directly from my peers, like people actively try to injure me. So for me, someone touching my skin or trying to touch my beard because they've not seen one before… is completely different.”
“Now at the same time, I've been on Sina Weibo,” he added. “I've seen racist blogs on the internet. I've seen racist blogs in every country I've ever been in.”