With the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., ongoing, countries including China have sensed a chance to strike back at what they see as the United States' preachiness and hypocrisy on human rights. This week, comments by
Facing outside criticism of its handling of similar crises, China's government has typically defended itself by saying it opposes any foreign interference in China's internal affairs. So when Harf appeared to say something similar, the media pounced.
The quote in question came during the State Department's daily news briefing Tuesday. When pressed by a reporter on whether the U.S. welcomes criticism from countries such as China, Russia or Iran on the situation in Ferguson, Harf answered: "As I said -- and this is really a domestic issue -- but briefly, when we have problems and issues in this country, we deal with them openly and honestly.
"I don't have any further comment on a process that is a purely domestic one and does not involve the State Department," added Harf, apparently trying to explain that as a State Department spokeswoman, her portfolio does not include domestic affairs.
But reporters from Chinese state media took Harf's answer to suggest that the U.S. rejected other countries' criticism.
On Thursday, state broadcaster China Central Television reported during its prime-time morning news segment that "the U.S. said other countries have no right to interfere with its domestic affairs."
The state-owned China Daily wasted no time and jumped in with a post from its official social media account: "U.S. spokesperson's response to suppression of the riot in Ferguson: This is domestic affairs of the U.S."
The events in Ferguson have been attracting increasing attention in China, and discussion of what constitutes “U.S. domestic affairs” immediately became one of the hottest topics on China’s
Many echoed the cry of hypocrisy put forth by Chinese state media. "Isn't it your country who likes to interfere with the domestic affairs of other countries?" wrote Bian Xiuquan, a professor from China University of Political Science and Law, on Weibo. Another user from Chongqing asked, "Didn't you always say human rights are more important than the sovereignty of a country?" (That remark was among the most-liked comments.)
Some witty Weibo users suggested Washington was plagiarizing China's Foreign Ministry. "This is a complete violation of China's intellectual property. Even if you want to quote us, please give us some credit," mocked Chris Zhang, a biotechnology student.
"You took the wrong script, dearie. That script is for the Chinese spokesperson," another user from Beijing commented.
Later, thanks to some English-speaking users on Weibo, Harf's original comments were presented fully. That led some to question the intentions of the Chinese state media.
"What a joke! Some Chinese press really has no shame!" Beijing based lawyer Yan Shubo said in a post on his Weibo account.
Tommy Yang in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.