One thing that has enabled the latter is the ongoing chaos of the United States presidential transition. While the long delay between the election and the inauguration always creates a degree of confusion over policy and potential for disorder, the angry refusal of President Donald Trump and other Republicans to accept the results has exacerbated this no end.
Biden’s team has criticized both, though he still has two weeks until he is in office, while Trump has been focused on fighting his election loss. His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, did however release a statement late Wednesday threatening sanctions over the Hong Kong arrests.
Both recent actions by Beijing were symbolic of a China that is both emboldened by its relative strength compared to the rest of the world right now, and keen to take advantage of the current chaos in Washington — one of President-elect Joe Biden’s top advisers had urged Brussels to wait before striking a trade deal, only to see Beijing offer concessions to get it secured sooner.
While the US may not have been able to stop either development even in the best of times, that a superpower has been seemingly outmaneuvered will delight many of Washington’s critics in Beijing and elsewhere, who have always felt the US throws its weight around too much internationally.
That China is preparing to roll out its own homegrown vaccine, with promises to export hundreds of millions of doses overseas — including throughout the developing world — only serves to underscore this apparent shift.
The violence seen in Washington on Wednesday will likely feed neatly into this narrative. On Wednesday evening, the Global Times, an ultra-nationalist state-run tabloid, ran the headline “Chinese netizens jeer riot in US Capitol as ‘Karma,’ say bubbles of ‘democracy and freedom’ have burst.”
The report, which summarized highly selective reactions to Wednesday’s events on Chinese social media, appeared to revel in what it termed US “double standards.”
“This is the first political coup to happen in the American continent without the involvement of US embassies,” read one mocking quote in the article.
Other, more prosaic state media reports compared the storming of the Capitol and 2019 anti-government protests in Hong Kong, taunting Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi who spoke out on behalf of the city about whether they would do the same for the pro-Trump rioters.
In a regular press conference Thursday afternoon, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying echoed these comparisons, saying “a lot of people are thinking about the fact that this is a déjà vu scenario.”
“I think some people on the US side have very different reactions and wording to what happened in Hong Kong in 2019 and what is happening in the US today, and this stark contrast and the reasons behind it are thought-provoking and deserve serious and profound reflection by all of us,” she added.
“We believe that the American people want security and peace, especially in the current critical situation of the pandemic, and we hope that the American people will enjoy peace, stability and security as soon as possible.”
But such comparisons are facile, given that protesters in Hong Kong were fighting for greater democracy — and Pelosi praised peaceful demonstrations, not the more violent ones that followed — while those in Washington Wednesday were seeking to overturn the results of an election.
The Hong Kong protests also provided the pretense for Beijing’s ongoing crackdown in the city, that Washington, for all its outrage, posturing and even sanctions, has proved powerless to stop.
Bringing China’s most obstreperous territory to heel has been a longtime goal of Beijing’s, but one that was made easier by a weakened US, less influential and forceful on the world stage and less able to rally its allies, for all Trump and Pence’s talk of building an anti-China front.
Chinese President Xi Jinping may now feel that he is in a position to achieve international objectives too, such as redoubling Beijing’s control over the South China Sea, or forcing a showdown over the democratic island of Taiwan.
In the election campaign, Biden matched Trump for tough-on-China rhetoric, but will likely be hoping for a relative reset in relations with Beijing once he takes office, enabling the US to compete with China from a position of strength going forward.
But with two weeks left until Biden takes office, it remains to be seen if the chaos in Washington will enable Beijing to pursue other long-sought goals.