Last year, a police officer rammed his motorcycle into a crowd of protestors in Hong Kong. Last week, a police SUV drove into a crowd of protestors in Brooklyn, New York. Over the past month, both the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) and US law enforcement officers indiscriminately fired tear gas at peaceful protestors. In both countries, police officers have also arrested journalists and openly attacked them with pepper spray. Though different in myriad ways, both China and the US are carceral states. Yet US politicians have praised resistance to police violence in Hong Kong while condoning police brutality in the name of law and order at home. This hypocrisy exposes the moral bankruptcy of how the US imagines its place in the world.
In the US, protests began after a white police officer murdered George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. The image of the murder represents the abhorrent police brutality and anti-Black racism in the country amplified by the nauseating feeling of déjà vu. The police systematically treat individual Black lives as serial, disposable bodies. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling are just a few examples of Black lives lost at the hands of the police. Police violence is the tip of the iceberg of a racist system built on Black slavery, criminalization, mass incarceration, redlining—all of which has contributed to the disproportionately high rate of Black death during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the mechanisms are different, China is similarly built on oppression. As Deng Xiaoping came into power, opening up the country to the global economy, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) abandoned its origins as anti-colonial, anti-imperial, and anti-capitalist. The 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China can be understood as a handing over of one capitalist-colonial state to another. Rather than dismantle the structures of British colonial policing, the return of Hong Kong to China under “One Country, Two Systems” (一國兩制) is built on a foundation of British oppression. This even includes policing tactics used by the HKPF that originate from British colonial rule. Since the handover, Beijing has asserted its control over the Special Administrative Region through various legal measures while its puppet government in Hong Kong speaks the language of law and order.
Although the struggles, histories, and causes are different, there are important linkages between the US and China. Comrades in Hong Kong have articulated a sixth demand to abolish the police (解散警队) drawing on Black intellectual-activists such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Angela Davis for inspiration. Hong Kong protestors have also improvised and disseminated new tactics of resistance, such as how to put out tear gas canisters, best practices for cyber hygiene, and techniques for dismantling surveillance cameras on “smart lampposts.” The symbolic acts of storming Hong Kong’s Legislative Council can also be likened to protesters burning the 3rd precinct building in Minneapolis. As police vehicles smolder in cities throughout the US, one of Hong Kong protest’s slogans, “when we burn, you will burn with us,” captures the feeling of desperation and rage on the streets of the US.
Despite these similarities, one of the most pernicious ideological tactics that both governments have at their disposal to regain loyalty is to invoke nationalism and point the finger at each other. Just days after protests broke out in Minneapolis, Trump, in a presidential address, lashed out against China instead of addressing the uprising happening across the country. When people took to the streets in Hong Kong, the CCP blamed the uprising on foreign influence. With each domestic problem that has arisen, national political leaders of both countries have refused to take responsibility and have instead deflected blame onto each other.
The con of US exceptionalism is no longer believable. Like China, the US has revealed itself as a violent carceral state distinguished by a modicum of liberal rights.
As the election season approaches in the US, this nationalistic rhetoric of standing against an authoritarian China will likely spread further. China’s state repression launders the violence of the US political system. Missouri Senator and a self-proclaimed ally of the Hong Kong movement, Josh Hawley, claimed in a tweet, “I have never ‘defended police brutality.’ Ever. And if you think the USA, with all our imperfections, is somehow equivalent to the authoritarian regime in Beijing, you have lost your way.” Such indignation shows that politicians like Hawley genuinely believe that they are fighting on the side of freedom even while militarized police forces descend onto the streets of US cities to “keep the peace.” In actuality, there has never been any peace for Black people in the US. From slavery to mass incarceration, Black people have always been oppressed. But come the general elections in November, we will continue to hear US politicians parrot the platitude that the US is a bastion of freedom in a life-and-death fight against communist China.
Indeed, it’s clear that the US has only taken interest in Hong Kong to score points against the PRC. The US Congress condemned the “unjustified use of force” in Hong Kong and passed the Republican-led Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which went into effect on 27 November 2019. Yet, as US politicians were proudly legislating against police violence in Hong Kong, a pandemic of police violence was taking place globally. In Santiago, Chile, after protests over the increasingly impossible costs of living, police officers fired tear gas into crowds of peaceful protesters and were estimated to be responsible for at least 5 out of 18 protest-related deaths in Chile. In Bolivia, following the coup against democratically-elected indigenous leader Evo Morales, the unelected interim President gave Bolivian police “broad discretion in the use of force.” The Indian state, through its repression in Kashmir, has violently targeted its Muslim population, with police brutality escalating during the COVID-19 quarantine, including beating a man to death with police batons for violating the lockdown. Despite unchecked police brutality around the world, the US Congress has only spoken against police brutality in Hong Kong, seeing it only for the leverage the city has against the PRC. That they’ve remained silent (if not outright supportive) about these other instances of police brutality demonstrates, yet again, the moral bankruptcy of US foreign policy.
The con of US exceptionalism is no longer believable. Like China, the US has revealed itself as a violent carceral state distinguished by a modicum of liberal rights. Trump is a product of the rotten foundation of racism and dispossession that has taken centuries to accumulate. But neither racism nor predatory capitalism will disappear after the current presidential administration. Hopefully, the protests enveloping the US right now will keep a spotlight on these injustices, and begin the work to dismantle the systemic violence built into the very core of this country. In such desperate times, Hongkongers have asked themselves: “Will a new and better Hong Kong emerge from the ashes?” In the US, it is time to ask ourselves the same question.