Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a Russian-Chinese energy and business forum on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia June 7, 2019.
Maxim Shemetov | Reuters
Of all the angry responses to President Trump’s decision to sign bills supporting the Hong Kong protest movement, the oddest one of all is an online campaign to label America as racist.
It’s coming straight from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the form of Lijian Zhao’s Twitter feed. Zhao is the deputy director general at the ministry’s Information Department, so this is obviously an officially sanctioned move by Beijing.
Early Thanksgiving morning, Zhao launched into a six-part tweet thread listing accusations and data about racial disparities in the U.S., with a shot at President Trump for added measure.
Zhao’s personal reflections stand out strongly in the midst of his usual heavy flow of retweets of official Chinese government statements. But what really stands out is the timing, coming just a few hours after President Trump’s signing of the Hong Kong bill. It couldn’t be much clearer that Beijing is hoping to dilute the impact of a rare bipartisan effort by Congress and the Trump administration to highlight China’s human rights abuses.
On first glance, this may seem like a pretty brilliant plan. Zhao’s twitter comments very closely mirror the American left’s long-running complaints about racism in this country. He was even shrewd enough to add references to mass shootings and President Trump’s controversial comments against the so-called “squad” of four freshman female congresswomen who are each members of racial minority communities.
Choosing racism as the wedge issue seems wise. While it would be foolish for anyone to discount the still very strong currents of racism in American society, there is a strong debate among respected leaders of both sides of the aisle about just how severe the racial divide is.
Anyone who doubts the perception of racism in this country isn’t very strong just needs to look at the still-developing Jussie Smollett case in Chicago. Even after the evidence showed that Smollett staged a purported racial attack against himself, most politicians who supported him haven’t rescinded their public comments in support of Smollett that were filled with angry arguments about racism and President Trump. It’s not that those politicians still believe Smollett was really attacked. It’s just too hard for them to retreat from any position that decries racism in America. When you think about the racism debate in America Zhao isn’t clutching at a wedge issue, he’s tapping into a live wire.
But will it work?
The tactic has a mixed and disputed record of success. When the U.S. started a massive military buildup under President Reagan in the 1980s, the USSR promoted videos of homeless people in America as a way to tap into the left’s opposition to defense spending at the perceived expense of spending to help the poor. But none of that stopped the Reagan policy and that U.S. military buildup that Moscow couldn’t keep up with was a key factor in ending the Cold War.
Going further back in history, imperial Japan adopted a campaign that mixed promoting Depression-era complaints about U.S. economic inequality along with a healthy dose of 1930s American isolationism in hopes of discouraging U.S. troops during World War II. The most notorious mouthpiece for that effort was a woman nicknamed “Tokyo Rose,” who was actually an American-born citizen of Japanese descent who was living in Japan during the war. The Japanese quickly recognized her and her American accent as an invaluable propaganda resource, and she eventually became the host of a radio show broadcast across the Pacific that mixed taunts, anti-war commentary, and popular music. The effort backfired, as most historians found that American GIs simply found her show to be a welcome diversion from the monotony of wartime duty.
Despite these past failures, Zhao can be forgiven for thinking this effort to bring the racism divide into the mix could tilt the U.S.-China human rights and trade disputes in Beijing’s favor. A key wildcard now is that the U.S. is much more divided on partisan lines than it was in the Reagan era or World War II.
It’s also a presidential election year, where two of President Trump’s Democratic rivals have already sent multiple signals that they’d be more dovish with China. Joe Biden has repeatedly slammed the Trump trade policy and has even said that China is not in competition with the U.S. Mike Bloomberg recently said that China is not a dictatorship and its Communist Party is “listening to the people on matters like environmentalism. If Biden and Bloomberg want to improve their poll numbers with minority Democrats, clinging to complaints about the racial divide could be a winning formula.
But as prominent as Biden and Bloomberg are on the political scene, the truth is they are the exceptions to the rule. Senate Minority Leader and Democrat Chuck Schumer famously tweeted a message of support to President Trump during a heated period in the U.S.-China trade talks this year that Schumer has not yet backed away from. Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren hasn’t backed President Trump per se, but her tough talk on China represents a good amount of the more left wing faction of the Democratic Party’s feelings on Beijing.
It’s also informative, if not a scientifically conducted analysis, to look at the responses to Zhao’s twitter statements. The litany of counterarguments that include references to Beijing’s rounding up of Chinese Muslims and dozens of other human rights abuses add up to what seems like a massive social media backfire.
Most importantly, the vote on the bill to support the Hong Kong protesters and punish China for cracking down on them was a whopping 417-1 in the House and unanimous in the Senate.
Put that all together and Zhao’s tweets seem to be nothing more than a desperate “Hail Mary” attempt thrust into the lap of a mid-level bureaucrat that Beijing can hope nobody remembers if this doesn’t go anywhere. But it could end up as a strong positive for the U.S. in another way if this incident helps us all realize that as real as our racism problems still are, not everyone talking about them has our best interests at heart.