Chinese media coverage of the US Capitol riot

When rioters invaded the US Capitol on January 6, the Chinese media could barely control their glee.

According to a headline in China Daily – the official publication of the publicity department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — “The Capitol riot is a collective American failure.”  The article argued that the riot was “squarely rooted in the US government’s inability to tend to societal issues that have been simmering over the last few decades,” including race relations, income inequality, and social media that wrapped “people in their own cocoons of comfortable opinions.”

The article concluded that the US has been so “focused on waging wars and poking its head into other people’s affairs [that it] easily overlooked all these brewing tensions… the shining city on the hill has been decaying from inside for a long time.”

While US allies were horrified and disgusted by videos of Trump supporters attacking police, CCP propagandists saw these events as an opportunity to support their “narrative that democracy doesn’t work and that its authoritarian model functions much better.”

The Washington Post reviewed the coverage in an article entitled “China is having a field day with US Capitol chaos.”  It noted that “Beijing has long argued its restrictions on its people’s freedoms were necessary to prevent chaos, and the unrest in the United States under Trump has played into that narrative.”  The events of January 6, it went on, have provided “a convenient defense for its authoritarian policies and iron-fisted suppression of dissent.” 

When Republicans and Democrats were unable to agree on how, or even whether, to investigate the riot, the coverage in China continued. When a group of Republicans from the Senate Homeland Security and Rules Committee published their findings on “Security, Planning and Response Failures on January 6” in June, a China Daily editorial cynically concluded that “While the candy-sucking report declines to draw the conclusion, the Capitol riot was incontrovertible evidence of the failing governance system of the United States.” 

Given the way that the Chinese government controls the press, it is no surprise that articles throughout China took a similar approach.  According to Tracy Wen Liu in Foreign Policy, reporters in mainland China were issued guidelines on how to cover the Capitol riots. “Write on how democracy could be hijacked by a group of uneducated people and how democracy could only be realized when the population is highly educated—and that China’s current education level is not suitable for democracy.”  Reporters were also told to focus their January 6 articles “on how the United States’ global reputation would be damaged.”  Which is exactly what they did.

Another China Daily article argued that that the events were “squarely rooted in the US government’s inability to tend to societal issues that have been simmering over the last few decades…. [For example], the rich [have gotten] richer faster than anyone else does.”  Underlying political fissures can also be clearly seen in “the Black Lives Matter movement… [which] part of the country sees as a rightful decry of systematic discrimination while the other [part of the country] considers it a challenge to social stability.”

The article went on to say that “from Ukraine to Venezuela, from Syria to Libya, people have suffered as a result of the attention the US politicians have given to affairs that do not concern them… Intent on their mischief-making elsewhere, US politicians have ignored the mounting problems at home.” 

Still another piece went deep into American history, describing the US as “a country built on slavery, with land forcibly taken from indigenous populations. The first draft of the US Constitution —right below high-minded passages about ‘a more perfect union’ — deemed Africans property, three-fifths of a whole human being.”

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came under special attack.  On January 7, the Global Times, another newspaper published by the CCP, noted that “Chinese web users still remember the distress and anger they felt when they saw rioters in Hong Kong storming the Legislative Council Complex … US politicians hailed the ‘courage’ of these mobs … House Speaker Nancy Pelosi even called it a ‘beautiful sight.’”  The article came complete with a picture to underline this hypocrisy.

This photo appeared in a Global Times article comparing politicians’ responses to the 2019 riot in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to the 2021 US Capitol riot.

However, a fact-checking article later rated this Global Times claim as FALSE. Pelosi did indeed use the phrase “beautiful sight to behold” on two occasions.  The first was during a 2019 congressional hearing when Pelosi was shown a picture of tens of thousands of non-violent Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors holding a candlelight vigil.  “It is a beautiful sight to behold, and I commend the courage of the people there for speaking out in light of China’s actions in Hong Kong these days …”  But both times Pelosi used the phrase “came before Hong Kong protesters broke into and ransacked the city’s Legislative Council complex on July 1, 2019.” 

Nevertheless, in China, as in the US, social media users are not known for caring much about facts or subtleties. “The phrase ‘beautiful sight to behold’ started to trend on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) on Jan. 7.”

“This is karma,” wrote one Weibo user. “The United States has been fanning the flames all over the world for many years, and now the fire of ‘freedom’ is burning themselves.  “There are no rules at all and no respect for the law,” said another. “This is the ‘democracy’ they boast about.”

A later China Daily opinion column entitled “Capitol Riots a Page in US Legacy of Violence” took the argument several steps further.  “The hordes who attacked Congress are the people who jeered students attending integrated schools. They’re the people who formed lynch mobs. MAGA and QAnon are just the John Birchers and Klansmen of yesteryear. Make no mistake: This is an old, abiding hatred with a fresh coat of paint… This reactionary rot, festering as it has for countless decades, was inflamed by the consolidation of capital and the monopolistic control of information through enormous tech companies.”

Foreign Policy’s analysis of Chinese coverage noted that “Beijing never misses an opportunity to glorify its governance when liberal democracies are challenged… The violence at the Capitol aided the Chinese government… by giving it another justification for arguing that control of speech is necessary.”

Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank summed it up this way: “Chinese media outlets broadcast images of mayhem inside the American Capitol to a domestic audience to buttress a narrative of America as a country in descent, plagued by deep divisions and a broken political system. Externally, official Chinese media outlets used news of the insurrection to make the case that the greatest threat the United States faces is itself, not China.”

Let me repeat that: “The greatest threat the United States faces is itself, not China.” 

He’s got a point.

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