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Chinese Communist Party Uses Scenes Of Violent Protests In The U.S. For Propaganda

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now, protests across the U.S. have created an unlikely opportunity for China. To the ruling Communist Party there, the unrest here is a propaganda goldmine. As NPR's John Ruwitch reports, the message out of China is clear - don't lecture us about human rights until you get your own house in order.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Scenes of chaos in Minneapolis, Washington and New York play out on China's tightly controlled state TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Chinese).

RUWITCH: Chinese propagandists see unrest on American soil as a way to score points after years of criticism from the U.S. over human rights in the authoritarian state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Chinese).

RUWITCH: American politicians must ask themselves, the announcer says, on what grounds do they spew their sanctimonious nonsense? Shouldn't they ask the American people for forgiveness? Orville Schell, director of the Center for U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, says America's turmoil is a boon for the Communist Party.

ORVILLE SCHELL: I think the Chinese Communist propaganda apparatus is very grateful to have some burning cities in the United States right now having had to suffer and feel deeply humiliated by the specter of Hong Kong being in a state of chaos.

RUWITCH: For nearly a year, Hong Kong has been beset by huge and at times violent street protests against Chinese interference. Just last week, the administration lambasted China over its move to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong. It threatened to sanction Chinese officials. China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian weighed in at a news conference in Beijing on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHAO LIJIAN: (Speaking Chinese).

RUWITCH: How come U.S. politicians called rioters in Hong Kong heroes, he says, but when it's happening in America they're labeled thugs? China has long pushed back against U.S. criticism of its human rights record, calling it an internal matter. And as relations between the two countries have plummeted, Beijing has only become more emboldened. Aynne Kokas, a Kluge fellow at the Library of Congress who specializes in Chinese media, says propaganda depicting America in a state of chaos actually works.

AYNNE KOKAS: Domestically, it's an incredibly effective tactic. For casual viewers who pick up a newspaper or pick up state media, this will shape how they see things.

RUWITCH: This week also marks the 31st anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests around Beijing's Tiananmen Square by the Chinese army. The U.S. slapped sanctions on China in the aftermath. Yesterday, President Trump threatened to deploy U.S. troops to quell unrest in American cities. The Asia Society's, Orville Schell says America's problems could play to China's advantage as competition between the two intensifies.

SCHELL: Well, I think it is harder for the U.S. to hold itself up as a model that is functional when it not only has got a pandemic that's run amok and it can't control but when it's cities are on fire with race riots. So I think it is a - kind of a net win for China.

RUWITCH: Even so, some of China's attempts at scoring points don't always go to plan. On Saturday, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus sent a tweet urging freedom-loving people to hold the Communist Party to account for its plans to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong. Her counterpart in China tweeted back, I can't breathe. But then something interesting happened, says Xiao Qiang with the University of California Berkeley School of Information.

XIAO QIANG: There's a whole bunch of Chinese users respond to say, I cannot tweet.

RUWITCH: They were thwarted, he says, by China's Great Firewall, which blocks Twitter and many other foreign websites. Chinese propagandists didn't miss a beat, though. They simply deleted those complaints.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.