The Capitol Riots: How Have America’s Two Biggest Rivals Reacted?

The Capitol Riots: How Have America’s Two Biggest Rivals Reacted?

The 6 January storming of the US capitol caused outrage amongst a large number of world leaders. Some of these dissenting world leaders, however, are now using the event as a central tactical argument to shore up their authoritarian regimes. Whilst there was a consistent display of shock and outrage from many governments, two of America’s principal rivals took a particularly different approach to the event. Both China and Russia have used the event as an instrument of propaganda at a time when stirring xenophoic and nationalist sentiment are important tools in Xi and Putin’s tactical arsenal. 

How Did Russia React?

Russian media was quick to capitalise on the chaos that unfolded on January 6th 2020, using the violent storming on Capitol Hill to discredit not just America, but the idea of democracy. State media immediately highlighted that the American electoral system is flawed, outdated and prone to various violations and irregularities. 

Indeed, a spokesperson for the Foreign Affairs Ministry remarked “[w]e would point out that the electoral system in the US is archaic and doesn’t meet modern democratic standards, creating the possibility for various violations.” The argument that the US has no right to criticise Russia’s electoral system, which has consistently been labelled as being prone to fraud and various other issues, was a central element. 

There has also been emphasis on how the Washington events have invalidated the US right to promote and push for democracy in other parts of the world. Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the Russian Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, announced[t]he celebration of democracy is over . . . America no longer forges that path, and consequently has lost its right to define it. Much less force it on others.” 

Some news outlets in Russia pointed to another instance of perceived hypocrisy, highlighting that many US lawmakers and political commentators initially were supportive of revolution in former Soviet states, where people have stormed government buildings and tried to overturn electoral results. 

As former politician Sergei Markov put it, “[t]he same politicians, experts, and media who only recently justified the seizure of government buildings in Ukraine, Belarus, and the street riots against Trump by supporters of Black Lives Matter and Antifa, now are categorically condemning the storming of the Congress.” 

What is the Strategic Significance of This Narrative?

The Russian narrative around these events has been enormously convenient for, and is directly linked to, Russia gearing up for their own state Duma elections in September of this year. Particularly in the lead up to these, Russia will be able to use the events that occurred in Washington to further silence dissent. 

Given that previous Russian elections were reported to have had mass violations, Russia can use the siege to discredit any criticism from the US in the lead up to, or after, elections, in which the United Russia party is expected to win. The storming of the Capitol very much played into Russia’s hands, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling it “the biggest gift” to President Putin.

Russian political figures have drawn an additional parallel. Following the permanent suspension of Donald Trump from Twitter, one lower house legislator remarked, “[s]ocial networks must work under strict rules within a legal framework because absolute freedom of information is becoming a weapon in the hands of extremists.” This suspension bolsters certain autocracies’ practice of censoring their citizens and social media platforms. This is, once again, something that the US, after condemning other countries for using such a practice, have now done themselves. 

Worrying Parallels 3,000 Miles Away

This observation was also made in the Chinese media. The Chinese government and media reactions have greatly mirrored those of Russia, being keen to highlight US hypocrisy. However, China has been a bit more specific in their own grievances

The stories of hypocrisy in Chinese state media specifically compare Westerm media and governments’ quick condemnation of protesters rioting and occupying the Capitol with their contrasting media coverage of Hong Kong activists when they stormed the Legislative Council building in July 2019. 

Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, argued, “[e]veryone may remember how some US politicians and media described the riots in Hong Kong, but look at their choice of words today. The US mainstream media have unanimously condemned today’s event, called it violent and shameful and described the protesters as rioters, extremists and thugs. But do you remember what they said about Hong Kong rioters?” 

Additional Themes 

Again, in line with the Russian view, Chinese state media were keen to highlight the events as an undermining and discrediting of the democratic process, and to discredit the US’s title as the leader of the free world. The Global Times tabloid called the episode a sign of “internal collapse” and degradation of the US political system not easily reversible

Another state broadcaster, CCTV, noted, “[t]he United States, which has always promoted democracy and human rights, is now the country of riots, conflicts and curfews.” Many Chinese internet users mirrored sentiments expressed by Russia, commenting that the chaos unfolding in America was “revenge” and “karma” for its double standards

Chinese reporters were in fact provided with instructions on what to emphasise in their reporting of the Capitol siege. Examples of the themes encouraged were other foreign leaders’ concerns about their alliances with the US, and the angle that democracies can be hijacked by the uneducated if allowed to. 

Some Chinese netizens even mocked the “Five Demands” that were famously called for during the 2019 Hong Kong protests, reframing them to fit the US context. Indeed, the Capitol siege could not have occurred at a better time for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On the eve of the siege, Hong Kong law enforcement were arresting 53 political activists, including one American human rights lawyer. Such activity would usually make headline news, but as a result of the Capitol riots, went largely unnoticed. 

The Legacy of the Capitol Siege For China and Russia

The violent, criminal behaviour of the Capitol rioters provided Beijing with an almost perfect narrative to claim that censorship is a superior type of governance, a particularly useful and timely narrative at a time when they are attempting to clamp down on Hong Kong. 

A similar story is unfolding in Russia, with citizens becoming increasingly unhappy with the United Russia Party’s offering. The events of January 6th have the potential to play a part in solidifying the oppression of these two peoples, as well as others around the world. Iran, Turkey, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Venezuela are other nations that have spoken out, with similar evaluations of what the riots have laid bare about the fragilities of democracy. The Capitol riots appear to have come at an almost opportune time for two autocratic powers that are keen to tighten their grip on power in 2021. 

Whether this insurrection may in fact spook Xi and Putin is another, less likely, possibility. Both leaders placing a high premium on continuity and stability, the events on Capitol Hill might have spooked them both. After all, if such a popular uprising can take place in the home of Western democracy, it can happen anywhere. 

Categories: International, Politics

About Author