Foreign Propagandists Exploit U.S. Unrest

China compares Hong Kong activists to U.S. looters, as ex-Iran prez quotes Tupac

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani / Getty Images
June 7, 2020

Foreign propagandists are exploiting the death of George Floyd to question the legitimacy of the U.S. political system and deflect concerns about their own human rights abuses.

China, Russia, Iran, and other authoritarian regimes have offered wall-to-wall coverage of the Floyd protests and ensuing riots on their propaganda outlets, using the unrest to paint democratic systems as prone to turmoil. The propagandists—as well as top-level government officials—have also exploited the Floyd protests to smear specific pro-democracy or anti-regime movements within their own countries, associating the movements with scenes of chaos and disorder in U.S. cities.

The spate of propaganda coverage and public statements are indicative of how foreign adversaries are manipulating an American tragedy to delegitimize anti-regime voices in their home countries. This is especially the case for China, as the Floyd protests served as a welcome diversion from the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and public outcry in Hong Kong, where demonstrators are out in the streets opposing a new national security law that would allow the Chinese government to crack down on anyone conducting what it considers seditious or terrorist activities.

Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of the state-controlled Global Times, has repeatedly tweeted about the Tiananmen Square massacre, accusing the United States of hypocrisy. For example, the propagandist uploaded a post comparing footage of Tiananmen's famous "tank man" standing in front of a tank column with videos of NYPD police cars crashing into protesters.

"The US repression of domestic unrest has further eroded the moral basis to claim itself 'beacon of democracy,'" Hu tweeted on Wednesday. "The era that the US political elites could exploit [the] Tiananmen incident at will is over."

Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said that China and the other foreign countries are at the "height of hypocrisy" for exploiting U.S. domestic unrest to delegitimize opposition back home.

"It is the height of hypocrisy for a communist party that has created concentration camps for Muslim Uyghurs, that has completely suppressed the freedom of its citizens, that has not allowed criticism because people who criticize it [end up] in prison … to lecture us on whether the riots are getting out of hand," he said.

Authoritarian governments are also using the Floyd protests to portray the United States in the worst light possible—a nation chronically ill with racism, as a spokesman for China's foreign ministry put it.

RT, a multinational media outlet controlled by the Kremlin, has aggressively covered the Floyd protests since late May as part of an effort to delegitimize pro-democracy movements abroad. On May 29, the propaganda organ aired a three-minute segment calling out the "hypocrisy" of U.S. leaders who support Hong Kong protesters but oppose violent riots in U.S. cities. The segment juxtaposed riotous scenes in U.S. cities with videos of Hong Kong protesters, who are now marching to oppose a new national security law that will undermine the city-state's rule of law.

"We criticize China for threatening to use its military against those [Hong Kong] protesters," the newscaster said. "As Americans take to a street and attack police and destroy property, the same voices who supported the Hong Kong protesters are calling American protesters 'thugs.'"

The Chinese government has also latched onto the Floyd protests as a way to deflect growing international concerns about its new national security law, as well as the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident.

Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry, used the protests to deflect U.S. concerns about the new national security law. When Morgan Ortagus, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, criticized the law on Twitter, Hua responded by writing, "I can't breathe," a popular Black Lives Matter slogan inspired by the deaths of Eric Garner and George Floyd at the hands of police officers. She also retweeted the May 29 RT segment that compared U.S. rioters to Hong Kong protesters, writing, "THUGS AND HEROES HYPOCRISY."

Chinese state media outlets have also used the current unrest to spin the regime's disputes with the United States over the coronavirus pandemic. China Daily published a cartoon criticizing the Trump administration's decision to terminate World Health Organization funding by evoking the Black Lives Matter movement. It depicted a coronavirus patient saying "I can't breathe" as his supply of oxygen is cut off due to Trump ending funding toward the organization. Another cartoon, titled "Beneath Human Rights," depicted the Statue of Liberty as a police officer kneeling on the neck of a dying George Floyd.

Iranian leaders, meanwhile, have used the Floyd protests to criticize America's maximum pressure policy against the theocratic regime and undermine U.S. support for Iranian protesters. Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif has been at the forefront of this effort. In one instance, Zarif "corrected" a U.S. State Department statement condemning Iran's crackdown on protesters by replacing all references to Iran with the United States.

Zarif also directly tied the U.S. sanction regime imposed on Iran to Floyd's death, saying that both involve a "knee-on-neck" technique that intends to strangle its victims.

"The 'knee-on-neck' technique is nothing new: Same cabal—who've admitted to habitually 'lie, cheat, steal'—have been employing it on 80M Iranians for 2 yrs, calling it 'maximum pressure,'" Zarif wrote. "It hasn't brought us to our knees. Nor will it abase African-Americans."

The Iranian efforts sometimes involve strange expressions of solidarity that betray a gap in Iran's understanding of American culture. Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to express his solidarity for African Americans by quoting Tupac, tweeting, "Pull the trigger kill a Nigga he's a hero." Critics mocked the president for using the n-word in an awkward attempt at solidarity.

Gonzalez, the Heritage Foundation expert, said that it is unclear how these comments are playing out in front of the domestic audience of the authoritarian regimes. He did, however, say that some of the more transparent attempts at distraction have "backfired," provoking anger among citizens who see through the government's attempt to divert attention abroad.

"When the Iranians tried to make use of [Floyd's death], and had a demonstration of people talking about the so-called racial intolerance of the U.S., the family of the people who died in the plane crash took to social media to say they aren't buying this," Gonzalez said, referring to the relatives of the passengers aboard the Ukrainian flight that was shot down by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in January. "They are doing this to deflect criticism from [themselves]."