Opinion | The Chaos in America Is No Gift to Autocrats

Is the political disarray in the United States really “a godsend for America’s critics” or a “propaganda coup” for them? Is Chris Coons, a Democratic senator from Delaware, correct to warn that the crisis of American democracy “feeds into the playbooks of authoritarian leaders around the world?”

Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman of China’s Foreign Ministry, for one, has called out some U.S. officials and politicians for describing protesters in Hong Kong as “democracy heroes” but saying that the Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol last week were “thugs” and “extremists.”

Russia’s first deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, denounced on Twitter the fact that protesters who entered the Capitol “Maidan-style” — referring to the 2014 uprisings in Ukraine, which garnered much support in the West — were being described as “criminals.”

The spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, has argued that the event “has once again brought our attention to the archaic electoral system of the United States.”

On Jan. 7, an editorial in Global Times, a nationalist tabloid controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, declared “an internal collapse of the U.S. political system.” On Wednesday, in reaction to Mr. Trump’s impeachment in Washington, it published an editorial titled: “The World is So Different: China is Fighting the Epidemic, the U.S. is Fighting for Power.”

And so? Does the deepening of cracks in America’s political system actually boost the legitimacy of China and other authoritarian regimes?

The United States’ self-portrayal as a beacon of democracy has been contested for many years, well before the Trump presidency — with shocking exposés about American soldiers torturing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib or the National Security Agency’s unlawful surveillance program. The Trump era has only offered more ammunition to America’s critics, including poignant images of immigrant children in cages and George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police or apocalyptic scenes of American hospitals overcrowded with Covid-19 patients.

The recent acceleration of the United States’ apparent self-destruction might have emboldened China and Russia to adopt even more assertive postures on the international stage: at the United Nations and with the World Health Organization; in the South China Sea, Ukraine or Syria. Yet damage to America’s reputation doesn’t actually bolster the reputation of authoritarian states. There is no direct connection between the two.

Admittedly, I argue this based not on a sustained or systematic analysis of media coverage, debates on social media or public opinion surveys — that work takes time — but on an early analysis of current coverage and my research about political communication in authoritarian countries, especially China. So far I see no reason to believe that even this hard a hit to America’s prestige will burnish the image of authoritarians elsewhere.

China’s global stature has suffered since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, even though the country has fared better than many major states in managing the crisis. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 14 industrialized countries in the fall, three-quarters or more of respondents in most of those countries saw China “in a negative light,” a much greater proportion than the previous year. A majority of respondents in another Pew study from the summer also held consistently negative views about Russia.

Does the propaganda work at home?

Chinese and Russian media coverage of the current crisis in Washington is designed to fuel nationalistic sentiments in both countries, and to some extent it succeeds at that.

Take this popular post by Global Times showing side-by-side pictures of the storming of the Capitol last week and of the protesters who broke into Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building in July 2019. Here is a comment responding to it that attracted more than 1,000 likes: “The ‘beautiful sight’ that Pelosi favors has finally happened in her own office,” referring to Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who had used the phrase to describe not the LegCo break-in but a 2019 vigil in Hong Kong for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The comment also said, “The United States doesn’t have double standards. It simply has no standard for right and wrong.”

At the same time, the chaos in Washington was widely broadcast on both mainstream media and social media in China, and mostly with little censorship, which is unusual. Allowing or even facilitating that flow of information seems to have been a propaganda gambit. But it could backfire for the Chinese government by breeding more fascination with the United States among Chinese viewers, especially if the story in America becomes a tale about the resilience of a democracy’s institutions against a dangerous president.

Some of the discussion on Chinese social media has analyzed the recent events in granular detail, drawing historical analogies. Commenting on a video that recorded the sound of a gunshot inside the Capitol, one Weibo user described it as “the Lexington gunshot,” a reference to the beginning of the American Revolution. Another Weibo user compared a picture of Trump supporters waiving a “Make America Great Again” flag on top of a car to “Liberty Leading the People,” the famous painting commemorating the July Revolution of 1830 in France.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that Mr. Trump’s attempted coup failed. That the election’s results have been certified. That he eventually — if belatedly and, it seems, reluctantly — denounced the violence of some of his supporters. And now, that he has been impeached again.

After Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of Global Times, claimed in a Weibo post on Jan. 7 that America’s democratic system had just imploded, one Weibo user argued instead, “the American system’s capacity to rectify mistakes is strong; it has withstood the challenge,” adding: “If this were the Chinese system, Trump could continue to stay as the president. Of course, China should prevent someone like Trump from taking office.”

Again, these comments are only tidbits of evidence, snapshots of one moment taken from broader, dynamic social media discussions; they will need to be studied further, in greater context, with more perspective. But they already suggest that perceptions in China and Russia about the political upheaval in America may wind up being shaped less by Chinese, or Russian, propaganda than by America’s response to its crisis.

The storming of the U.S. Capitol and the dramatic political fallout from that isn’t a gift for authoritarian leaders bent on denouncing America’s shortcomings so much as an opportunity for America to rebuild itself and its image worldwide. It is how America itself handles this crisis in the weeks and months ahead that will determine how this story, and America at large, ultimately is perceived by people in China, Russia and beyond.

Maria Repnikova (@MariaRepnikova), a 2020-21 fellow at the Wilson Center, is an assistant professor of global communication at Georgia State University and the author of “Media Politics in China: Improvising Power Under Authoritarianism.”

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