The phrase “beautiful sight to look at” began to trend on January 7th on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) – the words originally used by US spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi to describe peaceful protests in Hong Kong in June 2019 .
China’s state-run media Global Times published side-by-side photos comparing protesters from Hong Kong occupying the city’s legislative council and Trump supporters entering the U.S. Capitol in Washington in July 2019, a month after Pelosi’s statements.
China’s Communist Youth League also used the term when posting photos of rioters who stormed the Capitol, calling the tragic moments “the world’s masterpiece.” These Weibo posts drew thousands of comments and were retweeted thousands of times.
Last year, when COVID-19 hit China’s economic growth and political stability hard, an entire generation learned to hate foreigners and foreign countries. Of course, the government has always done its part in promoting nationalism. But now it supports a constant stream of 24/7 content and all opposing voices have been destroyed. When foreign media write about problems in China, they are viewed as hostile foreign forces, and when US democracy stumbles, Chinese internet users celebrate.
Reporters have been asked to write articles to support this celebration.
A reporter from the Chinese state media shared with me the guidelines she had been given to report the uprising in the Capitol. In her article, she was told to focus on how the United States’ global reputation was being damaged and deteriorated, and she mentioned how shocked world leaders were by this uprising and concerned about their alliance with the United States. She was also asked to write how democracy can be hijacked from a group of uneducated people and how democracy can only be realized if the population is well educated – and that China’s current level of education is not suitable for democracy.
On the morning of January 7th, a reporter from Phoenix Media told me that an article published by her team about how social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube had restricted President Donald Trump’s accounts, a number of online accounts had sparked discussions about how Western countries like the United States “don’t even have free speech”.
These discussions were led by the Chinese Foreign Ministry and fueled by a number of pro-Chinese Communist Party bloggers. A large number of Chinese internet users have long had the impression that there is no real freedom of expression in Western countries. They accuse the western world of double standards when they criticize the Chinese government for blocking website content, monitoring internet access, prohibiting dissent and disagreement, and deleting social media accounts.
The reporter expressed concerns about how people were interpreting her article and how this would make it even more difficult to start a discussion on freedom of speech and human rights in China. She recently interviewed some #MeToo victims and was saddened to see feminists fighting in an environment where government control over the internet, media and individual bloggers is tighter than it has been in the last decade – and where patriarchy is resurrecting. The violence in the Capitol helped the Chinese government by giving it another justification for arguing that language control was necessary.
Beijing never misses the opportunity to glorify its governance when liberal democracies are challenged. The violent, ugly, and criminal behavior of the rioters provided Beijing with the perfect narrative to claim that censorship is a superior model for governance. This is a story China is keen to move forward in its crackdown on Hong Kong, where 53 pro-democracy politicians and activists were arrested on Wednesday. And while many Chinese internet users celebrate the so-called failure of US democracy, some also ponder why the United States, known as the “lighthouse of democracy,” is leading others into the dark instead.