Column: At least we can mock Trump. Chinese citizens don’t have the luxury of criticizing their leader

Pro-democracy protesters pack the streets in Hong Kong. But they do so at great risk.
In Hong Kong, which is ever-more-tightly controlled by Beijing, protesters take huge risks to turn out in the streets.
(Wally Santana / Associated Press)

Few things bring out the Irish in me more than the Chinese government dunking on the United States of America.

Like just about every American these days, I’ve got my complaints about the direction our country is heading and how our government is dealing with the myriad challenges facing us. But, unlike virtually every Chinese citizen, I am free to express those complaints. Say what you will about the manifest incompetence and dysfunction of our government, at least — no, wait, that sentence should have ended at “government.”

Consider that among the many shortages imposed upon Americans these days, the national stockpile of fresh insults for the current president is almost exhausted. Stand-up comics and cable news pundits alike are trotting out recycled “Orange man” jokes about his bronzer addiction. But unlike other shortages, government regulation isn’t to blame; it’s simply because people have been mocking President Trump for so long, and so freely, new material is hard to come by.

The same can’t be said about China, where direct criticism of president-for-life Xi Jinping is outlawed. Critics have had to resort to clever workarounds. Images of Winnie the Pooh, for example, have been banned for several years now because critics started using the rotund fellow as a symbol for Xi.

This exposes the more interesting and ultimately wonderful difference between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. Both countries are flawed. Both have official names that don’t quite reflect reality. America really isn’t all that united, and China is in no way a people’s republic. But the rhetoric of America’s domestic critics is often theoretical and exaggerated for effect, while in China the rhetoric of domestic critics is coded, muffled or completely censored because it has to be.

Everyday people call Trump an authoritarian, in part because he likes to sound like one, but also because he isn’t one. If he were an actual authoritarian, people wouldn’t say it for fear of being thrown in jail. In China, fewer people call Xi an authoritarian precisely because he is one.

In America, people rightly condemn the legacy of Jim Crow, slavery and apartheid. In China, they actually have all three, right now. Forced labor is alive and well in China. Ethnic minorities in China are denied access to educational institutions, barred from traveling freely and are routinely discriminated against in the name of Han supremacy. Uighurs, Mongols, Tibetans are victims of cultural erasure and even genocide.


Last week, Omar Jimenez, a CNN reporter, was arrested by Minnesota state police while on air. The governor quickly apologized for the action. And the police claimed he was released as soon as they confirmed he was a journalist. This was surely a lie, since the Jimenez identified himself live on TV during the arrest. But it’s worth at least noting the principle here. Even the police felt it necessary to pretend they didn’t know he was a journalist, as a way to save face. In China, silencing journalists to save face is the principle set by the central government — and they do it constantly.

Last week, Trump ignited a fierce — and fiercely stupid — debate about “censorship” on Twitter, a privately held platform. The alleged censorship was Twitter’s fraught decision to tag one of the president’s ridiculous tweets with a link to a somewhat poorly executed fact check. In China, where social media platforms are vassals of the state, users are routinely censored (and worse), and reporting facts about the government is a criminal act.

The Chinese government has been having a grand time trolling America over both our recent peaceful protests and the criminal looting and violence, in response to the abhorrent killing of George Floyd. “The death of George Floyd reflects the severity of racial discrimination and police brutality in the U.S.,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao declared.

He’s technically right. But that doesn’t change the fact that in China, racism and police brutality are features of their system, not bugs that need to be worked out.

And then there’s Hong Kong. The Chinese government has been hammering the idea that the U.S. and Hong Kong protests are morally equivalent and, therefore, America is hypocritical for condemning China’s crackdown while supposedly doing the same thing here. But in America, all of the responsible voices are asking — nay, begging — the protesters, both violent and peaceful, to channel their rage at the voting booth. In Hong Kong, the protesters, violent and peaceful, are enraged because they’re seeing their right to vote, among other rights, nullified to fit official Chinese policy.

In America, politicians and citizens fight over what policies will best address the lingering evils in our society. In China politicians fight against the people to sustain the evils of their society. And that’s all the difference in the world.