U.S. Adversaries Weaponize Woke Politics

China says U.S. leads 'axis of white supremacy' while Russia smears dissidents

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March 4, 2021

The propaganda efforts of American adversaries show they're seizing on the rhetoric of the far left, particularly its criticism of the United States.

China responded to international criticism about the Uighur genocide on Monday by pledging to submit a "report on human-rights violations in the United States" that will discuss the Black Lives Matter movement. Russia, meanwhile, convinced Amnesty International in late February to revoke the "prisoner of conscience" label from Russian dissident Alexei Navalny by disseminating his decade-old anti-immigrant comments.

American rivals—from China to Russia to Iran—are using terms out of the woke dictionary, such as "white supremacy" and "systemic racism," to peddle propaganda in the United States. Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the progressive rhetoric allows propagandists to deflect criticism about their authoritarian politics and sow discord in America.

"This is a two-fer for them: It can sow dissent and unrest here, and then it can let them say to their own people, 'Look how unruly and violent democracy can be,'" Gonzalez told the Washington Free Beacon. "It makes the conduct of our foreign policy much harder, in places like Hong Kong or Xinjiang for example."

The Chinese government has repeatedly used progressive language to distract from its own human-rights abuses. China's foreign ministry spokeswoman responded to U.S. criticism about its crackdown in Hong Kong by tweeting, "I can't breathe" in May 2020, days after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Chinese propagandists also accused the United States of hypocrisy for supporting Chinese dissidents while cracking down on riots at home.

The Chinese propaganda effort has doubled down on its woke approach as pressure mounts on the authoritarian regime's treatment of Muslim Uighurs. In February, a Chinese mouthpiece accused a U.S.-led "axis of white supremacy" of spreading slander about Xinjiang to isolate China on the international stage.

"A U.S.-centered, racist, and mafia-styled community [is] willfully and arrogantly provoking China and trying to consolidate their hegemony as all gangsters do," reads a Feb. 23 editorial by the Global Times, a state-sponsored mouthpiece. "They are becoming a racist axis aimed at stifling the development rights of 1.4 billion Chinese."

Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) said the proliferation of progressive ideology in American society has allowed the Chinese government to exploit U.S. social divisions.

"It’s no surprise to see the Chinese Communist Party trafficking in propaganda that mirrors the shoddy arguments coming out of American newsrooms and universities," Hawley said. "And frankly, woke liberals and our increasingly deranged cancel culture give them every reason to think those arguments will work."

In one case, the progressive rhetoric allowed Chinese propagandists to shape American media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. Chinese state outlets accused Western outlets of racism for using the term "Wuhan flu" to refer to the virus in February 2020—even though those same outlets used that term for months. The racism charge convinced most U.S. outlets to drop the term, allowing the Chinese government to obfuscate the origins of the virus as the pandemic spread across the globe. 

"As they say, 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend," Republican congressman Jim Banks (Ind.) said. "It’s terrifying to see ... internal and external enemies of American greatness collude out in the open."

American adversaries have a history of exploiting U.S. progressive politics in their propaganda efforts. As far back as the 1960s, KGB agents tried unsuccessfully to recruit Martin Luther King Jr. to exacerbate racial tensions. 

Russia has inherited its Soviet predecessors' finesse for exploiting Western progressive discourse for its own gains. As Russia contended with growing domestic unrest over its detention of Navalny, the Kremlin organized a coordinated effort to disseminate comments made by Navalny more than a decade ago in which he called immigrants "cockroaches." In response, Amnesty International dropped the "prisoner of conscience" label for Navalny for his past "advocacy of hatred" on Feb. 24, securing a public relations victory for Russian president Vladimir Putin.

"One of the most visible international human-rights organizations has, in fact, labeled Navalny a bigot, a hater, an advocate of violence—in sum, a reprehensible person not deserving the title of 'prisoner of conscience,'" University of Houston professor Paul Roderick Gregory wrote. "Consider the irony of the unwoke Kremlin holding the feet of Western institutions to the woke fire."

China and Russia are not the only U.S. rivals using progressive rhetoric to smear the United States. Iran's foreign minister wrote tweets in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in May, while North Korea labeled the United States a country of "extreme racists" after the death of Floyd.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) said the progressive narrative meshes well with foreign propaganda because they share a common assessment of America as a "hopelessly evil country."

"Our enemies in places like China, Russia, and Cuba love nothing more than to point to these profoundly wrong ideologies to justify their own ongoing human-rights atrocities and to sow division here," Cruz said.