China wolf bait
Chinese propaganda plays on the manifest faultlines of American society
This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Earlier this year, the Chinese embassy in the United States made an appalling claim. “Studies show that in the process of eradicating extremism, the minds of Uyghur women in Xinjiang were emancipated and gender equality and reproductive health were promoted, making them no longer baby-making machines. They are more confident and independent,” read a post on the embassy’s Twitter feed.
It is hard to think of a more brazen defence of the forced sterilisation and re-education that form part of what a growing number of governments and international organisations now describe as genocide against Xinjiang’s Uyghurs. The post was an extreme example of the more forceful, combative brand of “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy that increasingly defines how China presents itself to the rest of the world — as well as just how unsubtle and unpersuasive such an approach can be.
Twitter eventually deleted the post, and, at the time of writing, the Chinese embassy in Washington remains locked out of its account. But the embassy’s shameless adoption of the language of women’s liberation revealed what China perceives to be the weaknesses of its target audience in the United States.
Increasingly, China is weaponising wokeness, exploiting internal divisions in the United States and distracting from the rising power’s own totalitarian repression with the arguments of the American left. At a recent, bad-tempered summit in Alaska, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, denounced China’s actions in Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, responded with a sixteen-minute tirade in which he said that “many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States”, and argued that whereas China has made “steady progress with human rights”, the US still has “many problems” including the “slaughter” of African-Americans. He name-checked Black Lives Matter as evidence of America’s internal difficulties. Furthermore, China accused the US of “systemic racism” during a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council last November. In March, the regime’s foreign propaganda office published a report on human rights abuses in the United States. It began with an epigraph: “I can’t breathe” — George Floyd.
Americans don’t exactly need any help when it comes to exacerbating internal divisions and deepening self-doubt
How effective is this propaganda? While China’s braggadocious trolling might go down well in some strange corners of the internet, mainstream US politics is unlikely to be swayed by sermons from a repressive regime. But Americans don’t exactly need any help when it comes to exacerbating internal divisions and deepening self-doubt. From systemic racism to the health of US democracy, Chinese disinformation advances the same critique of America as the most reputable and widely read newspapers in the country.
In response to the recent surge in racially aggravated attacks against Asian Americans, some American commentators argued that US foreign policy was to blame. The journalist Peter Beinart warned that “when America makes another country its enemy, it usually makes enemies of some group of Americans as well.”
“The lesson for today,” he wrote, “is that if America’s leaders are serious about combatting anti-Asian violence, they must do more than condemn it. They must stop exaggerating the danger that the Chinese government poses.” In the Washington Post, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Asian American Studies professor Janelle Wong argued that “when officials express fears over China or other Asian countries, Americans immediately turn to a timeworn racial script that questions the loyalty, allegiance and belonging of 20 million Asian Americans,” and accused Barack Obama and Joe Biden of “spen[ding] their careers embracing critical takes on China that have overlapped with Trump’s and that may have helped accelerate Sinophobic sentiment in the United States.”
The argument resembles those made in the Global Times, an English-language newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party, where “anti-China think tanks” are accused of “fanning hate against Asian Americans”. Again adopting the language of the woke left, the Global Times recently described the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group of Western nations as an “axis of white supremacy” and a “US-centered, racist, and mafia-style community”. Resisting Five Eyes was not just a matter of defending Chinese interests, argued the editorial, but also “defending the diversity of the modern world”.
Left-wing identity politics polluted the debate over China last year, when those investigating the origins of the coronavirus were shut down in part by claims that any discussion of Chinese culpability for the pandemic was a xenophobic dog whistle. Here, an important distinction needs to be drawn between Donald Trump’s ugly rhetoric — “Kung Flu” — and compiling a serious and credible case against the Chinese Communist Party for its cover up of any investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. An open, liberal democracy should be able to recognise the difference between the two and accept that there is no contradiction in taking the threat of China seriously and confronting anti-Asian racism. But America appears to be failing to do so.
While some American writers and public intellectuals only unwittingly alight on the same arguments as the Chinese Community Party, others do so with awkward, even suspicious, frequency. Then there’s perhaps the Chinese regime’s most credible apologist, Jeffrey Sachs – the well-known economist, a professor at Columbia and all-round global hobnobber.
Last month, Sachs co-authored an apologia for the Chinese regime’s actions in Xinjiang. “There are credible charges of human rights abuses against Uighurs, but they do not per se constitute genocide” wrote Sachs and William Schabas, a law professor at the University of Middlesex. “And we must understand the context of the Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang, which had essentially the same motivation as America’s foray into the Middle East and Central Asia after the September 2001 attacks: to stop the terrorism of militant Islamic groups.”
The article was only the latest in a series of whataboutery from Sachs, whose response to any discussion of Chinese totalitarianism is to wave his arms and shout “Iraq!” and who appears on the Chinese state broadcast CGTN. Far from being a fringe figure, Sachs is a credible academic with the ability to influence mainstream American debate. Troublingly, he also leads The Lancet’s Covid-19 commission.
We have been here before, of course. The same tactics were a pillar of Soviet propaganda during the Cold War. “But you lynch Negroes” was a favourite Kremlin reply to criticism of their own behaviour. But America feels more vulnerable to foreign trolling today than it did 60 year years ago. The political turmoil of 1960s America was underwritten by a level of patriotism and US self-confidence far higher than exists in the 2020s. Then, civil rights leaders framed their argument in the language of the Bible and the founding fathers. Martin Luther King Jr’s reverence for the Declaration of Independence, for example, would put him at odds with much of the contemporary left. His charge was that America had failed to live up to the promise of its founding. Today, the argument is that the country was founded on a lie.
According to Gallup, U.S. national pride hit a record low last year, with 63 per cent of Americans saying they are extremely or very proud to be an American, compared with 91 per cent in 2004 and 81 per cent as recently as 2016. Among liberals, the figure is just 34 per cent.
The Beijing elite are convinced that the West’s own decadence will be its downfall
Accompanying this slide in patriotism is a growing doubt over whether America’s frenetic democracy can outperform authoritarian China. While there aren’t many pro-Beijing tankies in the US, China’s rise and eventual eclipse of the United States is so taken for granted, that policymakers and politicians are too often more interested in emulation than competition.
The Beijing elite are convinced that the West’s own decadence will be its downfall. And many in the US appear to agree. Moderate technocrats marvel at China’s “state capacity”. The conservative journalist, Sohrab Ahmari, recently tweeted that he was, “at peace with a Chinese-led twenty-first century. Late-liberal America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower. Chinese civilisation, especially if it recovers more of its Confucian roots, will possess a great deal of natural virtue.”
Thankfully, the views of the average American appear to be more straightforward. Against the backdrop of a pandemic that started amid Chinese obfuscation and increasing US-China hostility, the percentage of Americans who see China as America’s greatest enemy has, according to Gallup, risen from just 11 per cent in 2018 to 45 per cent today. In other words, the penny has dropped.
However clumsy and ineffectual China’s woke-washing may be, Beijing has undoubtedly identified a weak spot. The challenge for the United States is to escape the self-defeating illiberalism that has emerged on the left while preserving the openness that makes it possible. Paradoxically, it could be that China’s increasingly assertive approach does the job, saving America from itself, awakening it from a stupor of self-doubt and refocusing the country on something more important than the dead-end of identity politics.
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