Earlier this month, People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP), ran an article by its Washington correspondent entitled “America’s Intractable Illicit and Pharmaceutical Drug Abuse Issue” (People’s Daily, January 6, 2023). The piece claims that “more and more American adolescents are becoming addicted to marijuana” due to its legalization by many U.S. states. It also asserts that U.S. media generally believe that drugs and substance abuse have “deeply permeated the fabric of American society.” An impoverished neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, is described as an urban wasteland, where “haggard drug addicts stagger past boarded-up storefronts and dilapidated houses.” One longtime opiate addict is quoted as having lost twenty friends to overdose deaths. In addition to covering the impact of the opioid epidemic on American society, PRC state media has also covered the U.S. homelessness crisis at length. Myriad articles and TV features highlight the large numbers of people living on the streets of America’s cities under “extremely poor living conditions with a lack of government assistance” (Beijing Daily, January 26; People’s Daily, October 21, 2021). A recent feature on state television described the “cold-blooded clearing of homeless tent camps” by local authorities in cities such as Los Angeles as commonplace but nevertheless controversial (CCTV, January 26). PRC state media generally characterizes the removal of such homeless encampments by local governments in the U.S. as “cold-blooded” (冷血) or “ruthless” (无情),but usually ignores other ways American cities have sought to address the homelessness problem, such as providing shelters, public health and employment services (Yangtse Evening Post, January 26).
It is unsurprising that PRC state media outlets are extensively covering domestic challenges in the U.S. such as the homelessness crisis. In the two months since the rapid rollback of the zero-COVID policy in early December, COVID-19 has spread rapidly throughout China, inflicting a high death toll, particularly among the elderly (South China Morning Post [SCMP], January, 23). Since the Mao era, the CCP has sought to deflect attention from China’s domestic problems and bolster the image of its own system by highlighting internal problems in democratic societies, particularly the U.S. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with much of China’s population enduring extended lockdowns, negative coverage of the U.S. epidemic prevention response was relentless. In late 2020, a headline in one leading state-run tabloid blared, “During the Pandemic, America Has Become a Modern Version of Hell” (Huanqiu, December 6, 2020).
In the ongoing dispute between the U.S. and China over who bears responsibility for the fentanyl crisis in America, Washington has maintained that Chinese authorities must do more to stop the flow of fentanyl precursor chemicals to North America (China Brief, January 19). However, Beijing has countered that the U.S. has failed to address the demand side of the problem, the illegal drug use epidemic in America. Last summer, when China canceled counternarcotic cooperation with the U.S. as one of “eight countermeasures” in response to U.S. Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Rahul Gupta, the Director of National Drug Control Policy at the White House, tweeted that China suspending cooperation is “unacceptable” with the opiate epidemic claiming over 100,000 lives in America in the previous year. In response, PRC Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin retorted that “the root cause” of the crisis lies in the U.S. He noted that the U.S. has just five percent of the world’s population, but is responsible for around 80 percent of global opioid consumption (PRC Foreign Ministry [FMPRC], August 12, 2022). Wang asserted that “the U.S. government has lost effective control over the management of prescription drugs” and that “public awareness on the harm of narcotics is lacking.” He concluded that “the U.S. must look squarely at its own problem instead of deflecting blame.”
PRC law prohibits recreational drug use of any kind and public attitudes towards illicit drug use are generally highly negative. Hence, PRC sources tend to characterize Americans’ use of pharmaceutical drugs and cannabis legalization at the state level as evidence of U.S. laxity on drug enforcement. In a 2019 report on “The U.S. Opioid Crisis and Sino-U.S. Drug Control Cooperation,” the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), a think tank under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, traces the origins of the U.S. opiate epidemic to the 1990s, when Americans began to use pharmaceutical opiates in large quantities. According to the report, this increasing usage was the result of intensive lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry and government promotion of medicinal opiates (CIIS, May 19, 2019). A 2021 Xinhua feature on the many “social ills” in the U.S. states that as drug abuse deaths have soared by 30 percent during the pandemic, the U.S. government has vowed to crack down on the problem, but in reality, due to the lobbying by various interest groups, authorities actually condone or even encourage drug use (Xinhuanet, July 10, 2021).
A Land of Contradictions
Even at the height of America’s unipolar moment in the early 1990s, CCP elites saw the U.S. as a deeply divided society. In his 1991 book America Against America (美国反对美国), lead CCP theorist Wang Huning, observed that despite all its power and dynamism, America is a country riven by “antagonistic contradictions” (矛盾) divided along ethnic, social, religious and political fault lines. The book, which is based on Wang’s travels and experiences as a visiting scholar at the University of Berkeley in California in 1988, characterizes America as a land full of “paradoxes.” In Wang’s account, America is a “rich country that is full of poor people; a democratic country that is not fully democratic; a developed country with many educational problems; a country where equality is celebrated but not practiced; and a supposedly stable society that is actually in crisis” (AAA, 1991). However, he goes further than just listing what he views as the inherent contradictions in U.S. society. Rather, in the context of Marx’s edict that “capitalism is its own gravedigger,” Wang asserts that it is necessary to understand the complexities of the U.S. in order to exploit its fissures and vulnerabilities. “My idea is to use the real America against the imagined America,” he writes.
The view that the gap between America as an ideal and America in practice has become a line of attack for China’s external propaganda organs in recent years. In doing so, the CCP has sought to make the case that the U.S. support for a rules-based order, human rights and political pluralism is motivated not by principle but by self-interest.
Who Defines Human Rights?
The U.S. has criticized the PRC for its poor human rights record, with the situations in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong drawing particular opprobrium of late. Official censure has been accompanied by a growing array of Congressional legislation, such as the 2021 Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (Congress.gov). Beijing has responded by falling back on its longstanding dictum that international relations must be based on respect for sovereignty and non-interference in states’ internal affairs (Xinhuanet, September 2, 2020). In doing so, the PRC has sought to cast the U.S. and a small coterie of its allies as weaponizing democracy and human rights. For example, in 2021, the PRC Ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun responded to a United Nations General Assembly debate on a resolution to condemn human rights abuses in Xinjiang stating that “in the name of democracy,” the U.S. and a few accomplices, “have been trying to get rid of those who dare to hold different views…But all their attempts will end in vain. Democracy is not a few countries’ privilege, but a right enjoyed by people of all countries” (PRC Mission to the UN, October 21, 2021). Zhang also questioned the U.S.’s credibility to stand as an authority on human rights. He claimed U.S. criticisms of China serve to “cover-up” its “own terrible human rights record. But the world sees it clearly. The U.S. conducted genocide against American Indians. The US suppressed its own people to the point they have to yell ‘I can’t breathe’.” The latter point underscores that the PRC seeks to present racial disparities in the U.S. as evidence of American hypocrisy on human rights.
In its public diplomacy on Xinjiang, the PRC has made some headway in enlisting many states in the Global South to endorse the fiction that the extensive evidence of systematic human rights abuses in Xinjiang constitutes a Western disinformation campaign to undermine China (Xinhuanet, June 21, 2022). For example, this past June, 69 “cross-regional countries,” led by China’s long-standing co-communist partner Cuba, delivered a statement to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stating that “Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet related issues are China’s internal affairs. We oppose politicization of human rights and double standards, or interference in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of human rights” (Xinhua, June 15, 2022). In January, a delegation led by Dr. Ali Rashid Al-Nuaimi, chairman of the World Muslim Communities Council, comprising 30 Islamic leaders from 14 countries, undertook a kind of Potemkin tour of Xinjiang (CGTN, January 11). During the visit, Al Nuami endorsed the PRC’s dubious presupposition that Uyghur “terrorist forces,” such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) threaten China (China Brief, February 11, 2022).
As part of the PRC’s efforts to cast the U.S. as a duplicitous abuser of human rights, the State Council Information Office (SCIO) releases a yearly report on “Human Rights Violations in the United States.” The most recent report, which was released last February, states that in 2021 the U.S.’s “notorious” human rights record worsened (SCIO, February 28, 2022). The report charges the U.S. with numerous violations, including discrimination against minorities, mass incarceration, disregard for public health and failure to protect citizens from rising criminal and political violence. For example, the report states “the elderly’ rights to life are flagrantly violated” in the U.S. with American politicians following “the natural law of ‘selecting the superior and eliminating the inferior.’” The report cites as evidence the half-a-million elderly Americans who died due to COVID-19, quoting a UN expert who observed that “discrimination in the delivery of health care services, insufficient prioritization of nursing homes in responses to the virus, and lockdowns left older people more vulnerable to neglect or abuse” during the pandemic.
The CCP has long sought to project a negative depiction of America to its domestic audience in China. However, as the PRC’s ability to influence the global information environment has increased, its external propaganda apparatus has also peddled this narrative to an international audience. While Washington may be tempted to disregard such efforts as mere “whataboutism,” this would be shortsighted. Instead, the U.S. should recognize that it faces an increasingly contested information environment, particularly in the Global South, which could have far-reaching ramifications. As the recent Russia-Ukraine war has shown, many countries in Africa, Latin America, South Asia and the Middle East are willing to turn a blind eye or even abet Moscow’s aggression due to self-interest, fraught relationships with the West, or both. If current attitudes toward the U.S. and China are indicative, efforts to rally international support for Taiwan in the event of PRC aggression might encounter similar headwinds.
John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: email@example.com.