Given the mutual recriminations that characterize the sorry state of U.S.-China relations as of late, it is hardly surprising that China’s state media should pounce on the optics of U.S. democracy under siege earlier this month. The Jan. 6 “incident” has gotten ample coverage in the Chinese media, though, perhaps against expectations, much of the reporting has stuck to known facts and is generally fair and balanced. One glaring exception to the generally even-handed coverage of turmoil in the U.S. capital concerns an out-of-context quote by U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi that has been twisted to suggest she found beauty in the vandalism and violence in the riots that beset Hong Kong in July and August 2019.
The quote is not in question. She did describe a mass gathering in Hong Kong as “a beautiful sight to behold.” But she was not talking about riots, violence in the streets or the takeover of the Legislative Council; her quote predates all of that. Yet the notion that she condoned mob violence as a thing of beauty has a seemingly unstoppable life of its own. The idea of karma coming home to roost is a compelling gotcha narrative, even if the assertions it is based on have been misconstrued.
One weaponized use of the Pelosi quote in reference to the Capitol attack comes from a staunchly nationalistic Beijing tabloid. Global Times Editor Hu Xijin was an early adopter, if not the initiator, of the incorrect observation that Pelosi was praising Hong Kong violence when she invoked the term “beautiful sight,” though in fact she was talking about something altogether different.
Hu Xijin, despite his reckless, and often careless characterizations, gets quoted far more often than he deserves. As a state-sanctioned curator of outrage, his intemperate views make for colorful copy. His newspaper outlet, conveniently published in English, has become something of a global go-to source for quotes about what China is thinking.
The Global Times is state media, linked closely with the People’s Daily, so it is not entirely wrong to imagine that opinions published under Hu’s byline reflect official thinking to some degree. But his column also bears the idiosyncratic imprimatur of a single individual, a firebrand who has at times found himself on the wrong side of the party line, though not often enough to diminish his usefulness.
Hu’s hawkish remarks can be seen as nationalist blather, but they are also test balloons. His takes on topics vets views not easily expressed in the tightly scripted world of Chinese diplomacy. With the rise of wolf diplomacy, however, Hu is not a lone voice in the wilderness, either.
Hu’s appropriation of Pelosi’s “beautiful sight” quote got ample play around the world, too, mentioned in Reuters, CNBC, Fox News, Time, Variety, Indian Express, Ahmedabad Mirror, New York Post, Independent and so on, but the place where his mockery is most volatile is on social networks where the meme, bite-size and digestible, feeds frothing commentary.
Hu posted a photo montage on his Twitter account on Jan. 6 comparing violent scenes from the Hong Kong protests with violent scenes in Washington. He takes on Pelosi directly, pairing a photo of a street aflame in Hong Kong adorned with her words, “a beautiful sight to behold.”
Next to that, a shot of a bearded protester sitting in Nancy Pelosi’s office chair is snarkily captioned, “seat occupied.”
Lu Xiang, a U.S. affairs specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted on the topic that same day in the South China Morning Post. Inadvertently or not, he also echoes the meme launched by Hu Xijin.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, not known to mince words, spoke extensively on the topic of comparing violence in Hong Kong and Washington in her Jan. 8 press briefing, but the English transcripts of her comments make no mention of the “beautiful sight” quote. Perhaps she dropped it out of respect for diplomatic protocol. Perhaps she was aware that Pelosi originally made that comment in reference to a June 4 candlelight vigil, a topic that she would not relish debating with a roomful of Western journalists.
Pelosi did indeed utter the famous words “beautiful sight” in reference to a crowd scene in Hong Kong, but she was looking at a photo of a mass candlelight vigil just held in Hong Kong. The gathering was huge, but orderly and peaceful, without a hint of vandalism or violence.
Now that’s beautiful
The candlelight vigil was not about Hong Kong, but staged in memory of the Beijing demonstrators who lost their lives in the Tiananmen demonstrations on June 4, 1989. Hong Kong, to its credit, is one of the few places in the Chinese world where this important event is openly remembered, an event that Communist Party censors have done their best to erase from public discourse, or frame in the worst possible way.
The voices and images of Capitol Hill, bastion of U.S. democracy, under attack will not soon be forgotten. But it is also worth remembering that it was President Trump’s cocktail of lies, twisted quotes and incendiary untruths that fired up the mob in the first place. Hua Chunying is correct in pointing out that words we use to describe political incidents matter a great deal. But she does injustice to her own point by quoting a misappropriated Pelosi quote that was ripped out of context.
Deliberately twisting a well-documented quote about the serene memorial of an event that cannot be discussed openly in China, and then pretending or imputing that it was a reaction to unrelated political acts of violence, which took place many weeks later, is plainly dishonest. A demonstration can be a beautiful thing, as the photographic images of the peaceful candlelit June 4 vigil readily attest. But the memory of that mournful event has been vandalized in the service of a false narrative propagated by agents of the communist party of China, and that is the ugly truth.
Philip J. Cunningham is a freelance writer on East Asian politics, author of “Tiananmen Moon” and “Tokyo Crush.”
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