The phrase “beautiful sight to behold” started to trend on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) on Jan. 7—the words originally used by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to describe peaceful Hong Kong protests in June 2019.
China’s state-affiliated media Global Times posted side-by-side photos comparing Hong Kong protesters occupying the city’s Legislative Council in July 2019—a month after Pelosi’s remarks—with Trump supporters invading the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
China’s Communist Youth League also used this phrase when posting photos of rioters storming into the Capitol, describing the tragic moments as a “world masterpiece.” These Weibo posts drew thousands of comments and were retweeted thousands of times.
In the past year, as COVID-19 hit hard on China’s economic growth and political stability, a whole generation has learned to hate foreigners and foreign countries. To be sure, the government has always done its part to breed nationalism. But now a constant stream of 24/7 content supports it, and all opposing voices have been destroyed. When foreign media outlets write about problems in China, they are seen as hostile foreign forces, and when U.S. democracy stumbles, Chinese netizens celebrate.
Reporters were told to write articles to feed into this celebration.
A reporter from Chinese state media shared with me the guidelines she received on how to report the Capitol riot. She was told to focus on how the United States’ global reputation would be damaged and deteriorated in her article, mentioning how world leaders were shocked by this insurrection and were concerned about their alliance with the United States. She was also asked to 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.
In the morning of Jan. 7, a reporter from Phoenix Media told me that an article published by her team about how social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube had all put restrictions on President Donald Trump’s accounts had spawned a series of online discussions about how Western countries such as the United States “don’t even have freedom of speech.”
These discussions were led by China’s Foreign Ministry and were fueled by a number of pro-Chinese Communist Party bloggers. A large number of Chinese netizens have long been under the impression—picking up cues from right-wing media elsewhere—that there is no real freedom of speech in Western countries. They accuse the Western world of holding double standards when criticizing the Chinese government for blocking website content, monitoring internet access, banning dissent and disagreement, and deleting social media accounts.
The reporter expressed concerns about how people interpreted her article and how that would make it even harder to start any discussion about freedom of speech and human rights in China. She had recently interviewed a few #MeToo victims and felt saddened seeing feminists fighting in an environment where the government’s control over the internet, media, and individual bloggers is tighter than it has been in the past decade—and where patriarchy is resurgent. The violence at the Capitol had aided the Chinese government, she said, by giving it another justification for arguing that control of speech is necessary.
Beijing never misses an opportunity to glorify its governance when liberal democracies are challenged. The violent, ugly, and criminal behavior of the rioters provided Beijing the perfect narrative to claim that censorship is a superior model for governance. That’s a story that China is eager to push as it cracks down on Hong Kong, where 53 pro-democratic politicians and activists were arrested on Wednesday. And while many Chinese netizens are celebrating the so-called failing of U.S. democracy, some are also reflecting on why the United States, known as the “lighthouse of democracy,” is instead leading others into the darkness.