"China gets criticized so much by the West that when something like this happens, it's convenient to offer a countercriticism"
(BEIJING) — Chinese and Russian state media have seized on the U.S. police shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old and ensuing protests to fire back at Washington’s criticisms of their own governments, portraying the United States as a land of inequality and brutal police tactics.
The violence in the St. Louis, Missouri, suburb of Ferguson comes amid tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine, as well as friction between Washington and Beijing over what China sees as a campaign to thwart its rise as a global power.
Both countries have chafed under American criticism of their autocratic political systems — China and Russia tightly control protests and jail dissidents and demonstrators — and the events in Ferguson provided a welcome opportunity to dish some back.
“China gets criticized so much by the West that when something like this happens, it’s convenient to offer a counter-criticism,” said Ding Xueliang, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology.
The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9 at the hands of a white police officer has inflamed racial tensions in the predominantly black suburb of Ferguson, where the police force is mostly white. Violent confrontations between police and protesters followed, in which tear gas, flash grenades and Molotov cocktails were exchanged.
A tartly-worded editorial in China’s Global Times newspaper on Tuesday said that while an “invisible gap” still separated white and black Americans, countries should deal with their problems in their own way without criticizing others.
“It’s ironic that the U.S., with its brutal manner of assimilating minorities, never ceases to accuse China and countries like it of violating the rights of minorities,” said the popular tabloid, published by the ruling Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily.
The Xinhua News Agency ran a similar commentary, tossing in references to enduring racism, National Security Agency spying and drone attacks abroad.
“Obviously, what the United States needs to do is to concentrate on solving its own problems rather than always pointing fingers at others,” Xinhua said.
U.S. criticisms of China center on attacks on political critics, along with heavy-handed policies toward minorities, especially Tibetans and the Muslim Uighur ethnicity from the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Washington also chides Russia over its intolerance of dissent and has joined the European Union in imposing sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for Ukrainian separatists.
Both China and Russia have invested heavily in state-controlled news outlets to project their own version of events.
In Russia, state television station Rossiya emphasized the use of force in dispersing protesters in Ferguson, sending the underlying message to Russians that the security forces in the democratic West are no less brutal or tolerant of protest than in Russia. Shots of rampaging protesters also seemed meant as a warning of the dangers of allowing protests to get out of control.
In Monday’s broadcast, a reference to recent U.S. military interventions was thrown in for good measure.
“Everything looked as if it were a military operation somewhere in Afghanistan or Iraq,” said reporter Alexander Khristenko. “Forming themselves into their own kind of fist, the police slowly moved forward, clearing the street, and the people saved themselves by running into residential areas.”
Like Rossiya, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV sent a reporter to report live from Ferguson — something unthinkable in the case of similar unrest in China. It also ran clips from U.S. talk shows blasting the police action and quoted African-American political commentator Richard Fowler saying social injustice was worsening.
“I don’t think it’s just African-Americans. I think what you have is a continued fight between the haves and the have-nots,” Fowler said.
Russia’s always-bellicose Russia Today channel ran an interview with U.S. professor and government critic Mark Mason, who called the Ferguson protests an outgrowth of income inequality and the militarization of American police forces.
“The police protect the Wall Street bankers, who own the City Hall, the City Council, the State House, the Federal government, the president of the U.S. and the Congress,” Mason told the channel.
There were also distinctions between the Russian and Chinese coverage, reflecting domestic concerns and the state of their relations with Washington.
While Russia and the U.S. have feuded bitterly and publicly, Beijing has sought to cultivate a stable relationship with Washington in which it is treated as an equal partner. Unlike in Russia, the U.S. is also widely admired by the Chinese public, who’ve made it a top choice for overseas education, investment and emigration.
China maintains an official policy of non-intervention in other countries’ affairs and says criticisms should be made in private. Too much open vitriol could undermine that position, and apart from the opinion pieces, Chinese media’s coverage of Ferguson has been relatively straight-forward.
The issues of racism and social unrest are also delicate one for China, which has been shaken by a rising number of protests and a string of violent incidents blamed on Uighur radicals seeking to shake offChinese rule over Xinjiang. Critics say the ensuing security crackdown has led to widespread abuses, including the killing of civilians.
The danger is that overplaying its criticism of the U.S. could open the window for more critical self-reflection among Chinese citizens, especially minority groups, Ding said. “They want to avoid holding an unintended public education campaign.”
The government is aware of that and is likely muting its coverage of Ferguson to avoid comparisons with Xinjiang, said Qiao Mu, director of Beijing Foreign Studies University’s Center for International Communications Studies.
“They’re wary of collateral damage, of tainting themselves,” Qiao said.
— Associated Press writer Lynn Berry contributed to this report from Moscow