As the US presidential election cycle heats up, groups of Hongkongers who support the pro-democracy movement began posting pro-Trump messages on social media platforms.
While some are fervent Trump supporters, many reluctantly support his presidency out of a sense of desperation, because they believe he is the Hong Kong movement’s last hope.
Before the election, Hong Kong critics and activists repeatedly and persuasively challenged the argument that Trump could effectively support the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. They cited his inconsistent attitude towards Xi Jingping, his mishandling of the pandemic, and his administration’s suppression and denunciation of domestic grassroots protests in ways that mirror Beijing’s own suppression of dissent.
Under the draconian national security law, however, Trump’s “tough on China” rhetoric seems to have become especially alluring to Hongkongers who are searching for a state leader they believe could forcibly counter Beijing’s suppression of political freedom.
Trump’s anti-China narrative during Covid-19 and his re-election campaign platform have marked him in the eyes of some as the only presidential candidate who will take a hard line against Beijing. A cursory look at Biden’s campaign response, however, reveals that both candidates have mobilised anti-Chinese sentiment to appeal to voters, much to the chagrin of progressive activists and Asian-Americans who have been the target of hate crimes.
In light of Biden’s anti-China political advertising, Hongkongers who support Trump out of a perceived sense of necessity may need to reconsider their stance.
While Trump’s anti-China platform is meant to appeal to his American voter base, it resonates with people in Hong Kong who believe their enemy’s enemy is their friend. This logic posits that because Trump is, according to his campaign platform, hard on Beijing, he must therefore be good for the Hong Kong movement.
This argument, however, does not take into account the complexities of US electoral politics and presidential discourse and controversies surrounding false claims in political speech.
Hongkongers’ support for Trump is due in part to local pundits who reiterate arguments made by his campaign without much nuanced analysis or contextualisation.
America First Action, a prominent pro-Trump super PAC (political action committee), has spent US$23 million on an anti-Biden ad campaign over the summer. It promulgates the message that Biden is weak on China through various ads and the website BeijingBiden.com, which accuses him of doing China’s bidding.
In one ad, the group makes the claim that “To stop China, you have to stop Joe Biden.” As local commentators repeat these statements uncritically as if they are based on sound analysis, they begin to gain traction in Hong Kong.
In the US, messages from a powerful super PAC like America First Action are widely understood to be politically and financially motivated and intended to discredit and attack the opponent. In other words, despite their authoritative tone, many are purposefully misleading and lack any sound political analysis.
During the 2016 presidential election, many political ads in support of Trump were found to contain lies. More recently, after reviewing 22 ads from the Trump campaign in 2020, the New York Times found that two thirds of them contain either deceptive video editing or misleading claims.
The controversies surrounding presidential campaign ads, however, may be lost as they travel to Hong Kong. Having spent over a year embroiled in bitter domestic political turmoil and protests, many Hongkongers likely lack in-depth knowledge about US presidential politics.
As a result, they may, following arguments made by local political commentators, interpret pro-Trump campaign messages not as potentially false claims but as valid evidence of why Biden would harm the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.
To counter Trump’s attack that Biden is “weak on China,” the Biden campaign issued a campaign ad in April. The video juxtaposes footage of Chinese medical workers and patients with Biden’s forceful statement regarding Covid-19: “I will be on the phone with China, making it clear: ‘We are going to need to be in your country. You have to be open. You have to be clear. We have to know what’s going on’.”
Showing footage from Trump’s rally and screenshots of his tweets and news headlines, the narrator continues, “But Trump rolled over for the Chinese. He took their word [about Covid-19] for it…Trump praised the Chinese 15 times.” While the Trump campaign champions his pandemic “travel ban” against China, Biden’s ad lambasted it for not being “airtight” enough.
Both candidates, in other words, have mobilised public anger and fear during the pandemic to attack each other as being too soft on China.
Both candidates are eager to attack China in broad strokes in order to appeal to a specific voter base in the US. In other words, Biden’s anti-China ad challenges the pro-Trump argument put forward by many Hong Kong political commentators.
On the one hand, Biden’s campaign ad highlights the hypocrisy of the Trump administration’s stance on Beijing, casting doubt on Trump’s commitment to countering Xi. On the other hand, as activists from the Asian-American community have pointed out, this ad could heighten anti-Asian sentiment in the US because – as Manju Kalkarni, the executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, argues – it conflates the Chinese government with its citizens, who have also suffered under Beijing’s repression.
By lambasting “the Chinese” for contributing to unemployment and Covid deaths in the US, Biden’s ad functions similarly to Trump’s anti-Chinese narrative: rather than addressing actual socio-political concerns domestically, both sets of ads try to win voter support by inciting US nationalism and bashing China and the Chinese people as the source of America’s problems.
Despite similarities between the two campaigns’ “tough on China” narrative, Biden’s ad has not gained as much traction among Hongkongers as Trump’s platform. Nevertheless, the parallels between their anti-China messaging demonstrates that both candidates have chosen to prioritise political expediency over actual policy commitments and substantive critiques of the Chinese government.
For people on the progressive left who believe, like Tobita Chow, the director of Justice is Global, that “it is possible to [criticize the Chinese government] in a way that is not racist and not nationalistic,” Biden’s ad is disappointing and even enraging.
Despite that, from my vantage point as an East Asian immigrant woman in the US, given Trump’s rampant bigotry against immigrants and people of colour, and his continual refusal to denounce far-right white supremacists, a Biden presidency is still preferable to Trump’s.
As for Hongkongers still undecided about who they want to win, campaign messaging alone does not paint a full picture of whether a presidential candidate would be a good ally to the Hong Kong movement, or whether he represents the democratic values we strive for.
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