In the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 9 shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, foreign journalists were quick to pounce on every aspect of the tragedy. Some American news reports noted that Russian media were using footage from Ferguson to sensationalize U.S. human rights abuses and racism and underscore the hypocrisy of habitually finger-wagging Americans.
Other observers noted that Chinese media were less vocal about the United States’ moral failings than might be expected. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, remarked that China seemed not to be “milking Ferguson for all it’s worth.” The implication was that China wasn’t as eager to shine a light on a story that might draw attention to its own ethnic and ideological conflicts, from state suppression of the Uighur ethnic minority in Western China to the human rights disputes cropping up in the ongoing struggles over property ownership and intellectual freedom.
This characterization is inaccurate. Starting the day after the shooting, CCTV-2 (the economy channel of China Central Television) dedicated a large portion of its international news hours to Ferguson, alongside more urgent international issues, from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s actions in the Pacific to the anti-terrorism campaign in the Middle East, that directly affect China’s frontiers. The coverage was fairly balanced and echoed closely that of Western media outlets such as MSNBC and CNN. It touched on all the major problems of American society exposed by this little-known suburb — the historical wounds of racism, socioeconomic disparity, structural inequity, police militarization (and its subtext of anti-terrorism) and the declension narrative of American capitalism. “It is an extremely complicated case,” the reporter declared at the end of one analysis. Indeed, the nuance of Ferguson has not been lost on Chinese audiences.
In praising CCTV’s coverage, I am not exonerating the Chinese government from the very real charge of limiting press freedom, nor am I defending state oppression in the face of Uighur injustice. For instance, responding to a widespread Uighur dissident movement and suspected terrorist attacks in a few Chinese cities, Beijing staged (and televised) yet another symbolic crackdown on Uighur rights. On Sept. 23, a Chinese court sentenced Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economist at Beijing’s Minzu University and a well-known activist, to life in prison on the arbitrary charge of separatism. But neither concern prevails in the case of the Ferguson coverage. Yes, American racial tensions bear a resemblance to those in in the Uighur Autonomous Region, with white American gentrifiers standing in for property-hungry Chinese parvenus. But the Chinese government has little current incentive to wage a fierce propaganda campaign like the ones seen in Russian media. Such antagonism may have been the norm in the immediate post-Tiananmen world order, but with China’s growing economic might, it has diminished in recent years.
If anything, it has served as a successful and jolting warning to the rising middle class in China, which increasingly faces what historian David Hollinger called (PDF) the ethical conundrum of postracial America. “With precisely whom does one try to affiliate, and for what purposes?” he asked. This problem of solidarity applies not only to stubbornly racialized Ferguson and the Americans watching footage of tear-gassed protesters from their living rooms but also to socialist-capitalist Beijing, where middle-class Chinese live comfortably amid factional struggles and regional unrest.
The ethical challenge, for China at least, is rooted in its cultural history. The newly created middle class — a product of China’s overnight ascension into the financial world order — is largely made up of the one-child-only generation and their embittered parents, who are themselves living oracles of a deeply traumatic past. Their memory extends much farther back than the brutal quashing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, to the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution. These wounded yet morally awakened people desperately crave certainty and a sense of belonging. They no longer see themselves as victims of a police state and even desire governmental security measures. To them, the armed police that currently patrol Tiananmen Square in response to recent unrest in China symbolize safety, not state oppression. These Chinese Horatio Algers are climbing up the socioeconomic ladder at the expense of ethnic minorities, the politically disempowered and other underprivileged populations, which have been pushed to the fringes of society.
The buzz phrase China watchers use to describe the country’s desolate moral landscape these days is “spiritual vacuum.” Indeed, moral certainty is hard to come by in an exceedingly irregular marketplace of beliefs. The eroding communist ideology and shrinking state-directed economy leave the country without a unifying narrative about its collective moral responsibility. Socialist directives now hold little sway in the daily lives of ordinary citizens; increasingly mobile social and familial structures are straining traditional values; “corporate culture” is a euphemism for post-capitalism-inspired spirituality, which enshrines big entrepreneurs and executives; folk religions are resurrected while the Vatican and evangelists of all sects and nationalities see a gold mine.
The most effective official comeback so far has been a uselessly vague program of moral doctrine instituted at the end of last year, which focuses on “core socialist values,” a 12-phrase catechism that lists the following values in a three-tiered order: prosperity and strength, democracy, civility and harmony on the national level; freedom, equality, justice and rule of law on the societal level; and patriotism, dedication, honesty and friendship on the personal level.
This mishmash of common-sense ideals conforms to what some historians call the syncretic style of Chinese spirituality — unbounded by definitional or sectarian boundaries. Nonetheless, the hollow doctrine is proof of a growing quandary of conscience regarding the country’s fast-shifting future. And it has not been lost on upper- and middle-class Chinese as they reflect on the events of Ferguson.
What is clear is that Chinese society has reached a critical crossroads that will lead it either forward or backward. The same yearnings for racial and economic justice that radiate from the American heartland speak to the hearts of millions of Chinese. CCTV’s rare meditation on Ferguson reflects a closer alignment between the official concerns and interests of the Chinese state and a dominant public opinion than we have seen in a long time — and its moral dimension should not be quickly dismissed.