How China plays on inter-race ties in the US
Why has China become so vocal about racial tensions in the United States? At their March meeting in Alaska, Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, took umbrage with US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s desire to discuss developments in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. “We hope that the United States will do better on human rights,” Yang retorted. “The challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated. They did not just emerge over the past four years, such as Black Lives Matter.”
The Black Lives Matter movement arose in the US as a reaction to the systemic use of excessive force by the police against African Americans. Protests were reignited last year following the killing of an African American man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of second-degree murder. The sense of injustice quickly assumed an international character: Black Lives Matter protests were organised in Tokyo, London, Paris, and Auckland. But US race relations have also become increasingly caught up in the geopolitical rivalry with China.
Last year, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted “I can’t breathe” – a slogan associated with Black Lives Matter – in response to criticism by her American counterpart of Chinese actions in Hong Kong. Two years ago, Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian – then in Pakistan, now Hua’s colleague – tweeted “If you’re in Washington, D.C., you know the white never go to the SW area, because it’s an area for the black & Latin. [sic.] There’s a saying ‘black in & white out’, which means that as long as a black family enters, white people will quit, & price of the apartment will fall sharply.” Although he subsequently deleted the tweet, it did not stop former US national security adviser Susan Rice (now a domestic policy adviser to Biden) from firing back on Twitter: “You are a racist disgrace. And shockingly ignorant too.”
Beijing’s sharpening rhetoric concerning US race relations is certainly intended to deflect criticism and draw moral equivalence with the US amid their intensifying battle of narratives. But such Chinese statements also have Cold War precedents.
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, Mao Zedong stated that “The storm of Afro-American struggle taking place within the United States is a striking manifestation of the comprehensive political and economic crisis now gripping US imperialism…On behalf of the Chinese people, I hereby express resolute support for the struggle of the Black people in the United States.”
This mirrored the accusations traded by the US and Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. As the US amplified accounts of Russian gulags, such as those of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and criticised the Soviet crackdown in Hungary, Moscow shot back. A 1957 article in Komsomolskaya Pravda lambasted racial segregation in American schools — those “who dream of nooses and dynamite for persons with different-colored skins…these gentlemen have the audacity to talk about ‘democracy’ and speak as supporters of ‘freedom’.”
One difference with the past is that such rhetoric now complements Beijing’s newfound market muscle. Nowhere is that more in evidence than in professional basketball. China remains a massive growth market for the National Basketball Association (NBA) and its sponsors, including apparel manufacturers. In 2019, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, tweeted support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, prompting NBA’s Chinese sponsors to take punitive measures against the league. Basketball superstar LeBron James – an outspoken supporter of Black Lives Matter who has significant financial stakes and endorsement deals in China – said that Morey “wasn’t educated on the situation at hand...we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too”.
The episode exposed divergent perspectives. While many American commentators criticised James for echoing Beijing’s talking points, several basketball stars privately felt that the US was being hypocritical by disparaging China while not sufficiently condemning and countering police brutality against African Americans at home.
The experience of the film industry suggests that Chinese professions of sympathy for Black Lives Matter are nothing if not cynical. Since Seven Years in Tibet starring Brad Pitt and Martin Scorsese’s Dalai Lama biography Kundun were released in the 1990s, Hollywood has generally refrained from producing content that risks upsetting official Chinese sensitivities. Journalist and author Isaac Stone Fish suggests such self-censorship is tied mostly to the exposure of diversified American media conglomerates to the Chinese market.
At the same time, film producers have admitted that casting African American leads has become more difficult because of fears that such films perform less well in foreign markets, including China. A 2017 study published by Johns Hopkins’ Carey School of Business demonstrated that films likely to do well in China began to cast more light-skinned actors in leading roles after 2012, when Beijing started allowing more foreign films to be screened.
Domestic social divisions have always intersected with geopolitical rivalries to some degree. But China’s cynical allusions to US race relations have started to have some unforeseen repercussions in an era of greater interdependence.
Dhruva Jaishankar is executive director, ORF America
The views expressed are personal