Government reactions to George Floyd protests, Tiananmen Square not ‘morally equivalent’, says US state department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus

Mark Magnier

Chinese comparisons of actions by US authorities during the recent American protests with Beijing’s crackdown on Chinese students three decades ago are seriously misguided, the state department’s top spokeswoman said on Thursday.

“What we saw in Tiananmen Square 31 years ago was a massacre, a massacre of innocent people that came from Hong Kong but also Chinese people to protest,” Morgan Ortagus said in an interview on the anniversary of the June 4 crackdown in the heart of Beijing.

“We have the right to peacefully assemble in the United States,” she said. “It’s important that we not, especially in the West, not try to have moral equivalency for things that are just not morally equivalent.”

During the interview, Ortagus also commented on Britain’s offer of possible citizenship, her tit-for-tat tweets with a Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomat and the erosion of autonomy signalled by Hong Kong’s decision not to allow a Tiananmen vigil this year.

In recent days, Chinese officials, social media users and state media have accused the US administration of applying a double standard. They say the US has no right to condemn China’s 1989 Tiananmen student crackdown and those more recently involving Hong Kong demonstrators even as US President Donald Trump has called on governors to “dominate” their cities and pledged to “quickly solve the problem” of unrest with military forces.

For over a week, dozens of US cities have seen at times violent protests and looting following the death of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota as frustration has welled up after generations of discrimination and inequity.

China watchers in the US have called the timing of the US unrest and Trump’s strong man response “a treasure trove” for Chinese nationalists and a “propaganda field day” for Chinese censors.

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A huge difference between the US and China, however, Ortagus said, was that Americans had the right to criticise their government, something rarely allowed in China.

“We will always stand up for rule of law, the right to protest, the right of assembly,” she said.

“They also, still to this day, keep at least a million Uygurs if not more, and other ethnic minorities, locked up in what they call re-education camps, simply for the crime of being Muslim, not being Han enough in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Ortagus declined to say whether the US would follow London’s lead in allowing Hong Kong residents to relocate. Britain offered a path to citizenship potentially involving millions of Hongkongers. This follows a US determination last week that the city was no longer autonomous from China after Beijing approved plans for a Hong Kong security law.

“We will always stand up for rule of law, the right to protest, the right of assembly,” US state department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said. Photo: AFP

“We never preview any policy decisions that we’re making behind the scenes,” but the administration supported London’s move given London’s long historical relationship with Hong Kong, Ortagus said.

Analysts said that given Trump’s anti-immigrant bias they did not expect the US to follow suit any time soon.

Ortagus said that recent trolling by Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, one of a new generation of “wolf warrior” diplomats, was ironic.

“It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad,” Ortagus said. “Hua Chunying enjoys the freedom of using Twitter because she is a CCP [Chinese Communist Party] official.

“Sadly her fellow citizens don’t have that same freedom and will never see her tweets, unless they leave the country.”

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Twitter and most outside media are banned in China’s tightly controlled information ecosystem even as Beijing uses it to reach foreign audiences.

The kerfuffle between the two spokeswomen follows a Hua tweet last weekend reacting to one of Ortagus’ Twitter messages – about how China has reneged on its “one country, two systems” pledge to respect Hong Kong independence – with a provocative: “I can’t breathe.”

This phrase was among Floyd’s final words before he died, which have become a rallying cry for US demonstrators.

Analysts said the growing nationalistic tone by some Chinese diplomats was not terribly diplomatic.

“The world has met the wolf warrior diplomat,” said Evan Medeiros, a senior fellow at Georgetown University and a former National Security Council official. “And she’s howling louder than ever.”

Ortagus said the US was “greatly concerned” with the Hong Kong government’s decision not to let demonstrators mark the Tiananmen anniversary for the first time since tanks rolled into the square three decades ago.

“We have to recognise reality,” she said. “It is now one country, one system.”

Analysts said Chinese and American diplomats had a tough job these days as relations plummet. “They’re obligated to defend what is very difficult to defend,” said Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Centre, a Beijing native. “On that, they’re probably in the same difficult spot.”

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But Ortagus was on solid ground when she disavowed comparisons between the US reaction to its unrest with the Tiananmen crackdown and Beijing’s tightening grip over Hong Kong, Sun said.

“As [former] president [Barack] Obama said yesterday, protest is healthy. The US as a country started with protest and a revolution,” she said. “The difference is tremendous.”

Others said the world would not know much about the tragic Tiananmen crackdown without the Western media, which rather ironically Beijing is relying on for its propaganda.

“Coverage by the US media of the present day protests across the US provide China with the images to craft their narrative moving forward,” said Andrew Mertha, director of the China studies programme at Johns Hopkins University.

The gist of that narrative, he said, was: “look at the instability following poor leadership in the US compared with the stability fashioned by Xi Jinping’s approach to governance”, referring to the Chinese president.

False equivalents aside, however, analysts said global diplomacy is often as much about perception as facts. And by that measure, Washington does look hypocritical.

“The US looks anti-democratic, not living up to its values, including its annual condemnation of Tiananmen,” Medeiros said.

“That is a perception problem that the US has to fix, and sooner rather than later.”

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