Nationwide unrest over the death of a black man named George Floyd in police custody has roiled the U.S. for more than a week, and China’s state media apparatus is in full gear.
State-owned media in China are highlighting President Donald Trump’s violent anti-protest rhetoric and U.S. lawmakers’ denouncement of the demonstrations and riots, alternately calling out U.S. “hypocrisy” over prior support of protests in Hong Kong and pointing to the U.S. police tactics as proof of Hong Kong cops’ relative restraint.
Trump on Monday described the protests and looting as “acts of domestic terror” in his first White House speech since the nationwide demonstrations kicked off, and said he would send in the U.S. military to cities and states that do not contain the unrest. Police sprayed a chemical agent to disperse mostly peaceful protesters near the White House on Monday so the president could pose for a photo at a nearby church.
“Quelling protests with troops self-contradictory for U.S.,” one headline by the Global Times, a state-run outlet, read. “U.S. elites backing [Hong Kong] riots snub grassroots protests on their soil,” read another. The article criticized U.S. politicians for their “hypocrisy” and “double standards” over Hong Kong.
“What is happening right now [in the U.S.] once again shows the seriousness of racial discrimination and violent law enforcement by the police, and the urgency for the U.S. to address them,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Monday.
U.S. Congress overwhelmingly supported a Hong Kong-focused human rights bill last year, and U.S. politicians have been vocal in their support of antigovernment protesters in Hong Kong whose dissidence prompted Beijing to push for a controversial new national security law.
The charges of U.S. hypocrisy—officials’ opposition to domestic protests versus their support of those in Hong Kong—are Beijing’s attempt to undermine Washington’s assertions of moral authority on the issue of Hong Kong and on the matter of human rights more broadly. Pointing out unrest and violence in the U.S. is a way for China to score points in the growing strategic and economic rivalry between the two countries.
“News coverage about bad things happening in the U.S. is quite a normal thing in Chinese media, especially in Chinese official media,” said Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Every time bad things happen in the U.S., the Chinese propaganda machine will seize that opportunity.”
But comparing the U.S. to Hong Kong is a “new strategy” that achieves “two goals simultaneously,” Fang said. It helps “portray the U.S. in a negative sense but also question[s] some [U.S.] politicians’ response to Hong Kong protests last year.”
Hong Kong in the crosshairs
In Hong Kong last year, opposition to an extradition bill, now withdrawn, saw millions of city residents join peaceful marches in June that morphed into an antigovernment movement that engulfed the city for the rest of 2019 and early 2020 in marches, strikes, street battles between demonstrators and riot police, and university campus sieges.
The Hong Kong protests attracted vocal support from many U.S. politicians, and prompted the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in November. “The police violence against protesters in Hong Kong is unacceptable,” U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.), one of the prominent pro-Hong Kong U.S. politicians, said on Twitter last year.
On Monday, Cotton voiced support for sending in the U.S. military to quell the domestic protests and said, “We should have zero tolerance for anarchy, rioting, and looting.” Chen Weihua, the European bureau chief for state-owned newspaper China Daily, called Cotton a “hypocrite” in response. “That just contradicted what you said about rioting and anarchy and petrol-bombing-throwing mobs in Hong Kong for months and months.”
The U.S. protests were sparked by the death of Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. Derek Chauvin, the white officer who was filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes before Floyd died, has been charged with third-degree murder.
“To some extent, [U.S. and Chinese politicians] are blaming each other to gain legitimacy domestically, and this strategy is very similar to each other,” Fang said.
Chinese state media selectively amplifies U.S. politicians whose remarks on the U.S. protests conflict with previous stances on Hong Kong, like Trump’s and Cotton’s, Fang says, while passing over commentary focused on the underlying structural causes of the U.S. protests, like that of former President Barack Obama, who has written about broader systemic issues.
“I don’t think the Communist Party’s propaganda will highlight those arguments because that would also remind people of other structural problems in Hong Kong and in China,” Fang said.
A ‘sensitive’ anniversary
The U.S. protests, and China’s efforts to seize on them, come at a time of year that recalls Beijing’s troublesome history with unrest. June 4 marks 31 years since the Chinese government declared martial law and violently suppressed demonstrations in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing, resulting in hundreds—if not thousands—of deaths. (The actual toll is not known.)
Beijing will have to toe the line of capitalizing on ongoing U.S. demonstrations while not drawing attention to its own infamous crackdown, which its state media does not publicly acknowledge.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam echoed Chinese state media sentiment on Tuesday in her first press conference since Trump said the U.S. will remove some of Hong Kong’s trade privileges as retaliation for the national security law.
Lam, who is is currently in Beijing to discuss the national security law with the central government, criticized Washington for “double standards” towards protests in the U.S. compared to those in Hong Kong.
There is usually a candlelight vigil every year on June 4 in Hong Kong—the only commemoration of the event on Chinese soil—but authorities in the region banned the vigil for the first time this year, citing the risk of coronavirus. Pro-democracy activists said the ban was an “excuse to suppress our rally.”
“A sensitive date is coming,” Fang said, “so [state media] must act very carefully not to remind people of any memories of 31 years ago.”
More must-read international coverage from Fortune:
- 4 more years of Trump may accelerate China’s rise, says former UN Security Council president
- “Nuclear option”: How the U.S. could leverage Hong Kong to hurt Beijing
- London’s Savile Row exported bespoke British suits to the 1%. Can it survive in a socially distanced world?
- To recover from COVID-19, Europe wants more 5G
- WATCH: The global crisis in recycling
- Subscribe to Fortune’s Eastworld newsletter for expert insight on what’s dominating business in Asia.