The Debate | Opinion

Trump’s Handling of the US Protests Plays Right Into China’s Hands

Sending out “heavily armed” forces against angry protesters is exactly what China would do — and is doing in Hong Kong.

Shannon Tiezzi
Trump’s Handling of the US Protests Plays Right Into China’s Hands

President Donald Trump walks past police in Lafayette Park after he visited outside St. John’s Church across from the White House, June 1, 2020, in Washington.

Credit: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Tomorrow, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to meet with survivors of China’s violent crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, commemorating the 31st anniversary of the bloody event. Whatever Pompeo says will be undercut by the fact that, a few days earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump pledged to “deploy the United States military” against protesters in cities across the country, as a movement demanding justice after yet another murder of a black American by police has morphed into sporadic violence.

Trump, speaking from the White House yard on June 1, promised that he would be sending “heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers” to deal with what he characterized as “professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa, and others.” Though Trump attempted to distinguish between those groups and “peaceful protesters,” law enforcement acting at his behest appeared not to differentiate. While Trump spoke, police were firing tear gas and flashbangs at nonviolent protesters gathered outside the White House in Lafayette Square in order to clear a path for Trump to walk to St. John’s, an Episcopal church at which generations of presidents have prayed since it was completed in 1816, for a photo op outside.

With violence flaring up from Minneapolis — where the murder of George Floyd initially sparked the latest wave of outrage over anti-black racism — to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., Trump and his administration have been quick to pronounce the violence that has accompanied some protests as a threat to law and order. “Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled,” Trump said. And if any local leaders drag their feet, he promised to “deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

That is a deeply troubling statement for a U.S. president to make — especially just ahead of the Tiananmen crackdown anniversary. It is also, ironically, music to China’s ears.

China’s reaction to the U.S. protests has been complicated. For one thing, the massive, nationwide outcry against racism provides an obvious opportunity for Beijing to dig at the United States for its flawed human rights record — and make the corresponding, if disingenuous, claim that racism in the U.S. disqualifies Washington from speaking out about China’s own human rights abuses. China has fully embraced that opportunity.

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In the past, Chinese officials would refuse to answer questions on domestic turmoil in other countries, in keeping with China’s much-touted principle of “noninterference.” But Beijing seems to have changed tactics this time, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian saying at an official press conference that “black lives matter.”

“Racial discrimination against ethnic minorities remains a social ill in the U.S. What is happening right now 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,” Zhao said. That’s a far cry from what in the past has been the more standard line — “This is an internal affair of the U.S. We have no comments” — and pointedly more in keeping with the United States’ usual approach to human rights abuses overseas.

The most immediate benefit for China, however, is not an opportunity to crow about institutionalized racism in the United States. In fact, the biggest gift for Beijing is not the protests themselves, but the Trump administration’s response. The use of excessive force — tear gas, rubber bullets, and flashbang grenades lobbed by police dressed in full SWAT gear — against rioters, peaceful protesters, and journalists alike eerily mirrors China’s own response to protests in Hong Kong.

Even the rhetoric Trump has adopted echos China’s preferred description of protesters in Hong Kong. The protesters are being manipulated by foreign forces? Check. A heavy emphasis on maintaining “law and order” with barely a nod to the legitimate grievances driving people into the streets? Check. Using real acts of violence to dismiss an entire movement as rioters? Check. Ignoring the fact that an overzealous police response to protests helped spark the violence in the first place? Check.

When Trump said, “These are not acts of peaceful protest. These are acts of domestic terror,” he could easily have been quoting a People’s Daily article on the Hong Kong protests.

Under another president, the protests seen across the United States today could have provided an opportunity to showcase a different way — a better way — to handle the sort of raw anger on display. Deploy police to maintain safety, yes, but in a defensive capacity only. And more importantly, make the effort to listen to what the protesters — fellow citizens — are saying and make genuine efforts to address their complaints.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam was unable to do this because, in the end, she is beholden not to Hong Kongers but to a few elites in Beijing. She has no real authority to hear out grievances, much less make then necessary compromises to assuage them. Trump, who sits at the apex of U.S. power, has no such excuse. He had the option to respond with compassion and determination to right deep-seated wrongs. Instead, he chose to use the language of force in answer to political demands.

That opened a window for Zhao, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, to directly undermine U.S. support for Hong Kong’s protest movement:

[W]hy does the U.S. refer to those “Hong Kong independence” and black-clad rioters as “heroes” and “fighters” but label its people protesting against racial discrimination as “thugs”? Why did the U.S. have so many problems with the restrained and civilized way of law enforcement by the Hong Kong police but have no problem at all with threatening to shoot at and mobilizing the National Guard against its domestic protesters? 

To Zhao, of course, the preferred line of action would be for the United States to agree with China that both groups of protesters are “thugs.” The far better option is to see them both as, in the words of NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “people pushed to the edge” — and react, as he recommend, with “not a rush to judgment, but a rush to justice.”

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Trump missed that chance, and in so doing he played right into China’s hand.