George Floyd’s gut-wrenching killing by American law enforcement officials shocked the United States and reverberated around the world. As an American graduate student in Beijing earlier this year, I saw firsthand how America’s misdeeds, past and present, undermine its credibility as an advocate for self-determination, civil liberties, and human rights.
Studying international relations among classmates from China, Russia, Europe, and elsewhere, I came to appreciate the indelible mark left by the Iraq War — another instance of American malpractice — on others’ impressions of America.
If an American student raised a point about China’s behavior in the South China Sea or alluded to its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, my classmates would retort “But look what you did in Iraq!” To them, the United States was an inauthentic messenger for the values it claimed to represent because of its misdeeds in the Middle East.
But America’s credibility as a beacon of democracy is most undermined by its unrelenting mistreatment of Black Americans.
The persistent structural racism and police brutality thrown into stark relief this month diminish America’s ability to condemn countries like China for their domestic wrongdoing. If America’s leaders take the notion of great power competition seriously, they should compete by sharpening the contrast between the United States and its authoritarian rivals on the treatment of minority groups and dissent. America can gain the upper hand and better embody the ideals it seeks to promote by vigorously reforming law enforcement practices, and the health, economic, and political systems that entrench racial injustice.
Of course, for most of its history, the United States has not lived up to its ideals—it still does not. The lofty words “all men are created equal” were written into America’s Declaration of Independence by Founding Fathers who owned slaves. The franchise was only expanded to non-White men in 1870 and to women in 1920. Just this month, Georgia’s primary election was marred by voter suppression efforts designed to stymie Black voters. How can American diplomats credibly call out rigged or fraudulent election practices elsewhere when the unfettered ability to cast a vote is illusory in the United States?
Already, both Chinese and Russian state-owned media have pushed a narrative of American hypocrisy for proclaiming Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrators heroes, while calling domestic protestors thugs.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a mirror to the face of American society and further exposed the blemish of racial injustice. Black Americans have died at more than double the rate of White Americans. Already, the uneven economic recovery has exacerbated income and wealth inequities; the May jobs report featured rising Black unemployment amidst a decline in White unemployment.
On top of the pandemic’s disparate impact, a spate of killings continued a long tradition of police violence against Black Americans. Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others died at the hands of law enforcement sworn to protect them.
As protests engulfed cities across the United States, America’s traditional adversaries were quick to respond. Conspicuously seeking to deflect from Russia’s own repressive policies towards protest and dissent, foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova stated that, due to the chaos, the United States “simply cannot have any questions for others in the coming years.” China’s foreign ministry responded too. On Twitter, spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted “I can’t breathe” — George Floyd’s last words — in response to a US State Department spokesperson’s post calling for “freedom loving people around the world” to stand with Hong Kong’s embattled populace. Already, both Chinese and Russian state-owned media have pushed a narrative of American hypocrisy for proclaiming Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrators heroes, while calling domestic protestors thugs.
Under even the slightest scrutiny, these statements ring hollow. Both countries’ cynical words are undercut not only by their hypocrisy but by racist counternarratives and clumsy execution. A later tweet by Hua began, “All lives matter,” a retort — denounced by Black activists — used in opposition to the “Black lives matter” rallying cry. The editor in chief of Russia’s state-owned RT “forwarded an openly racist message on social media that suggested protestors were drug addicts and criminals,” according to the New York Times.
True, these opportunistic attacks are callous and lack credibility. But American calls for rule of law and self-determination in Hong Kong fall flat when soldiers of the 82nd Airborne are on hand to quell protests in Washington, DC, and a sitting US senator argues for widespread military deployment to American streets. Moreover, when President Trump purposefully conflates peaceful protestors with terrorists, he provides cover to Beijing for China’s internment of upwards of 1 million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province under the guise of de-radicalization.
Competition between China and the United States in the coming years will be defined by perception as much as power. Talent lies at the heart of the race to innovate in areas like AI and quantum computing which are crucial to national security. Yet the Chinese students I met in Beijing had perfectly reasonable fears about coming to the United States for future work or study. They were startled by the backlash the Asian American community faced in the early days of the pandemic, and wondered whether they would be welcomed by a country that so often appears to treat non-White people with rancor. But they were also drawn by the promise of America.
The United States has fallen short, like so many times before. The stain of America’s systemic oppression of Black people grievously undermines its moral voice; but the hard work of democracy is not over. America’s authoritarian adversaries neglect that it is the ceaseless pursuit of an idealistic standard that sets the United States apart. America’s credibility as a messenger for freedom, democracy, and human rights does not rely on the perfect embodiment of those ideals, but the imperfect struggle to attain them.
Gabriel Lerner is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University. Twitter: @gabe_lerner.