“Capitol Hill down”. “A beautiful sight!” Chinese and Russian state-controlled media are crowing over the chaos that has befallen their arch rival.
The looting, vandalism and assaults on law enforcement officers panned out for hours under brightly coloured MAGA hats and billowing Union – and Confederate – flags and has proven to be a propaganda bonanza for America’s opponents.
Beijing and Moscow are touting the “success” of their authoritarian leadership, with every possible negative connotation carefully excised by censors. Behind the scenes, they’re already amping up diplomatic pressure and military intimidation to impose their will on a weakened world order.
“Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin will be delighted with the chaos unfolding in the United States right now and will be tempted to take advantage of the situation,” says Australian National University national security Emeritus Professor Paul Dibb.
Chairman-for-life, Xi Jinping has already moved to exploit Washington’s convulsions with a demand to neighbouring Taiwan to “cut US military ties immediately”.
He also moved to arrest 53 pro-democracy activists and formerly democratically elected politicians.
Meanwhile, President-in-perpetuity Vladimir Putin has moved to tout his “benevolent dictatorship”. “This certainly gives no one the right to point the finger at the flaws in other political systems, including in election legislation,” he said.
As the QAnon and neo-Nazi festooned mob swarming through Capitol Hill, one Chinese academic declared: “this very iconic day will be a ‘Waterloo’ for the US’s international image”.
Beijing is already drawing a false equivalency between Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests and Washington’s insurrectionists.
“@SpeakerPelosi once referred to the Hong Kong riots as ‘a beautiful sight to behold’ — it remains yet to be seen whether she will say the same about the recent developments in Capitol Hill,” the Chinese Communist Party-controlled Global Times posted on Twitter.
The comparison is a stretch. Hong Kong’s protesters opposed Beijing’s unilateral abandonment of its handover treaty with the UK and demanded the right to an independent legal system and elect the city’s leadership.
Washington DC’s mob attempted to prevent the peaceful transition of Presidential power after all 52 US states had certified their votes as being fair and valid.
But the chaos at the heart of America’s democratic system is cause for exultation among Party and Putin loyalists alike.
The China Communist Youth League captioned photos of the riot with lines such as “real images of the most beautiful sight”. Posters paired these with contrasting scenes, such as volunteers in full PPE administering vaccinations in rural China.
Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow officials are assuming the high-ground.
China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying has called upon the US to “take necessary measures to ensure the safety of journalists”.
“We hope that the American people can enjoy peace, stability and security as soon as possible.”
“This ‘beautiful sight’ is just one of many outbreaks resulting from deep-rooted internal conflicts in America,” wrote CCP columnist Lan Linzong.
Chinese and Russian propagandists have long been pushing a message of “People’s Authoritarianism” – essentially, a new spin on the notion of benevolent dictatorship.
Beijing argues its intense restrictions on social freedoms and expansive (even international) surveillance system was necessary to prevent chaos. It doesn’t elaborate on why the allegedly pleased, blissfully content populace risked falling into such a state.
Instead, it points to the rise of US insurrectionists as shattering the US’s image being a “beacon of democracy and freedom”.
The Global Times has been running articles under headlines including “Chinese Netizens Jeer Riot in US Capitol as ‘Karma,’ Say Bubbles of ‘Democracy and Freedom’ Have Burst”.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani declared: “What happened in the United States showed how weak Western democracy is. When a sick person takes office, we see how he disgraces his country and creates troubles for the world.”
Moscow, of course, was not going to remain silent.
“The celebration of democracy has ended. It has, unfortunately, hit rock bottom, and I say this without a hint of gloating,” said Russia’s foreign affairs committee chairman Konstantin Kosachyov. “America no longer charts the course and so has lost all right to set it. And, even more so, to impose it on others.”
ANU international relations department Professor Widmaier says US politics has long been plagued by paranoia, conspiratorial thinking, anger and grievance.
“However, these influences have generally been confined to the fringes of debate,” he writes. “What makes the past four years different is that these views have been espoused by the President of the United States – and we can trace a direct line from Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and outright lies about the 2020 election to the siege of the US Capitol.”
It has proven fertile ground for foreign – and domestic – “attitude engineering”.
US intelligence agencies and think-tanks have long warned of the carefully crafted and co-ordinated disinformation attacks being propagated through social and traditional media.
Russia and China point to these “weaponised” disinformation campaigns as justification for censorship. Both have barred Western social media platforms such as Google’s YouTube, Facebook and Twitter from their populace.
They argue it is a justification for state and party-controlled censorship – the same strict censorship that has been repeatedly criticised by Western democracies.
“Social networks must work under strict rules within a legal framework. Because absolute freedom of information is becoming a weapon in the hands of extremists,” Kremlin legislator Anton Gorelkin posted on his Telegram channel.
He did not detail how banning a multitude of potentially critical words such as “Pooh Bear” and “Emperor” in China achieves this end. Nor how Russia’s attempts to isolate its population from the rest of the world solves that country’s internal lawlessness and social discontent.
“The shining city on the hill has been decaying from inside for a long time,” Chinese English language television channel CCTV broadcast Wednesday, declaring the riot to be a sign of its “glittering disintegration.”
CCP-controlled China Daily zeroed in on the immense social and economic inequalities within the United States: “Let us be reminded the assault on freedom and democracy in the US began 20-plus years ago when those in the halls and boardrooms of power decided to govern for the wealthy, corrupting and sucking dry as a bone all the goodness found in Western capitalism’s attributes”.
Beneath the bluster and hypocrisy are valid points.
America’s democracy is at its “rambunctious worst”, says Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at ANU John Blaxland.
“Vice President Mike Pence’s unwillingness to comply with Trump’s calls to ignore the democratic outcome and Trump’s own belated call for his protesting supporters to obey the law suggest that this moment will pass and that Biden’s ascension to the presidency will proceed unhindered,” he writes.
President-elect Joe Biden has an enormous task ahead of him: “The pandemic is in full swing, domestic wounds have yet to heal, and significant and troubling international challenges remain relating to political interference, great power contestation and unprecedented environmental challenges. So expectations should be modest.”
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