China often complains about distorted or overly emphasized foreign media coverage of its domestic affairs, especially protest movements and other signs of unrest. With violent confrontations between police and protestors erupting in the United States’ Ferguson, Missouri following the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Chinese media have a chance to turn the tables.
China’s English-language state media have been covering the Ferguson riots extensively. Monday, Xinhua published a feature describing the scene in Ferguson, attempting to capture what Xinhua called the “festive, but highly charged” atmosphere during a night of protests. The story itself was sympathetic to the protestors, quoting their dissatisfaction with racial prejudices in the United States. One protestor told Xinhua, “It makes you feel like since slavery there’re some things in St. Louis that just haven’t changed.”
In response to the Ferguson protests, Xinhua issued a “backgrounder” chronicling the “major racial riots in the United States since 1990.” From the 1992 Los Angeles riots to the Cincinnati riots in 2001, Xinhua pointed to previous examples of violence stemming from fatal encounters between black youths and the local police force. This places the Ferguson riots in a long tradition of U.S. racial violence, rather than treating it as an isolated incident.
Interestingly, Chinese-language coverage of the protests is more limited, and not featured prominently on news websites. The main Chinese-language article released by Xinhua serves mostly as a summary of the events in Ferguson — from the death of Michael Brown and the initial police response to the protest movement and eventual riots.
This story emphasized not the police response and the racial discrimination in the U.S., but the mechanism through which the protests turned into violent riots (a problem of more immediate concern for Beijing). One witness interviewed by Xinhua and featured prominently in the story claimed that “strangers” from another town had joined the protests hoping either to “party” or to pick a fight with police. That narrative has close parallels to Xinhua’s reporting on the April 2014 Maoming protests, where Chinese media blamed a group of troublemakers for taking advantage of a protest march to run amok. In both stories, the actions of these violent outliers is seen as justifying a strong police response.
The difference between English and Chinese-language coverage of the Ferguson protests suggests two things. First, the Chinese domestic audience is not all that interested in protests and riots taking place within the United States. As usual, Xinhua’s Chinese language webpage is dominated by domestic news coverage, including a featured piece on Xi Jinping’s latest speech. Second, China’s extensive English-language coverage of the Ferguson protests, so different in emphasis from the Chinese-language articles, seems to be aimed not at a domestic audience but at an international one. More specifically, China’s English-language reporting on the Ferguson protests is intended for the United States itself.
China has often used the United States’ racial issues as a rebuttal to U.S. criticisms of human rights in China. Each year, Beijing issues its own human rights report on the U.S. in response to the annual State Department report on China’s human rights situation. And each year, racism is listed as one of the top issues in the U.S. This year’s report argued, “Racial discrimination exists systematically in U.S. society and the situation of ethnic minorities’ human rights is grim.” The report especially emphasized that “racial discrimination is prevalent in the field of law enforcement and justice.”
Accordingly, Chinese media took advantage of the protests and rioting in Ferguson to revisit the United States’ human rights situation. One Xinhua commentary wrote: “it is undeniable that racial discrimination against African Americans or other ethnic minorities, though not as obvious as in the past, still persists in every aspect of U.S. social lives, including employment, housing, education, and particularly, justice.” The piece concluded, “The Ferguson incident once again demonstrates that even if in a country [sic] that has for years tried to play the role of an international human rights judge and defender, there is still much room for improvement at home.” In its English-language stories, China is writing partially for U.S. officials and repeated a constant theme: clean up your own human rights messes instead of “pointing fingers” at China.