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The Storming of the Capitol – Part One: Trump’s Red Guards

In the first part of a series of analyses, Anthony Barnett looks at how the Chinese Communist Party is weaponising the Washington insurrection to defend its suppression of Hong Kong

A person looks at the US Capitol on 9 January 2021 after it was stormed by Donald Trump supporters. Photo: Sipa USA/SIPA USA/PA Images

The Storming of the Capitol: Part OneTrump’s Red Guards

In the first part of a series of analyses, Anthony Barnett looks at how the Chinese Communist Party is weaponising the Washington insurrection to defend its suppression of Hong Kong

The storming of the US Congress brings to a head a crisis for democracy.

It is one that has been rolling towards us for some time – and it is not called Trump. It is called Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng – the Communist Party of China. 

The support given to it by President Donald Trump’s last effort to overturn the 2020 US Presidential Election result is more significant than the convulsion of narcissism erupting out of Washington. 

A cry of theatrical, self-satisfied horror went up China’s Global Times. It tweeted the day after the attack on the Capitol:

“What word did they use about [Hong Kong]? What words are they using now? #US media condemn the incident in US, calling it ‘violence’, ‘thugs’, ‘extremists’ and ‘disgrace’. What words did they use to describe riots in [Hong Kong]? ‘Beautiful sight’, ‘fighters for democracy’.”

“In response to reports on riots in US, China hopes that Americans can enjoy peace, stability and security as soon as possible, Chinese FM spokesperson said, urging people to reflect on why some people and media in US gave different narrative on social turmoil in Hong Kong in 2019.”

Global Times Twitter

The US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comment that the storming of the Hong Kong legislature on 1 July 2019 was “a beautiful sight” had particularly irked officials in Beijing. Now they felt they had identified her double-standards. 

The next day, the Global Times editorial stated:

“Something has gone wrong with the US political system, it goes without saying. Chinese people are not gloating at the chaos in the Capitol; they are simply unhappy with the US supporting the mob who attacked the Hong Kong Legislative Council. From the perspective of the Chinese people, the attacks in Hong Kong and Washington are very similar. Both were anti-democratic and anti-rule of law. Chinese people hope US elites can learn to put themselves in other’s shoes this time, ending their foul game of double standards.” 

‘Bombard the Headquarters’

From a ‘Chinese perspective’, it is not hard to know what was taking place in Washington. The tens of thousands who rallied outside the White House, the Proud Boys and their fellow ‘patriots’, as Ivanka Trump hailed them, were Trump’s Red Guards. He called on them to march the two miles down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol and show strength. The aim, to “fight like hell” to retain the presidency.

In 1966, after the disasters of the ‘Great Leap Forward’, Chairman Mao’s power as the head of China was finally threatened by his colleagues. He allied with a section of the army and called on the Chinese people to “Bombard the Headquarters”.

The ‘Great Leader and Helmsman’ exploited economic dissatisfaction and provided the young and marginalised with the heady attraction of being called on to assault “the rigged system”. Of course, this unlocked social forces which took on their own significance. But it was instigated as a bureaucratic fight for control over the Chinese state.

After he had his opponents beaten and driven into prison or exile as ‘traitors’, the Cultural Revolution was closed down and Mao cut a deal with Richard Nixon. 

Unlike China, in 21st century America, the rules and procedures held. 

But suppose the Trump-supporting Secretary of State of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, who anyway oversees an extraordinary system of voter suppression, had agreed to ‘find’ 11,780 votes to flip the state? What if the none-more-loyal-to-Trump, Vice President Mike Pence had then used this as an excuse to halt the count of electoral college votes in the joint session of Congress, as the President wanted? 

What would have happened if President Trump had in fact managed to force Congress to discount the electoral college votes and suspend an outcome supported by a seven million majority of US voters? 

Why, then hundreds of thousands of Democrats would have been fully entitled to have stormed Congress to take back their democracy. 

Authoritarians Celebrate

There can be just and justifiable insurrections. One of these has been in Hong Kong.

Those who battled their way into the Hong Kong legislature in 2019 were calling for the right to a vote that was in fact being taken from them. They were not spouting untruths about an election being ‘stolen’. The demonstrators and the entire ‘be like water’ movement was indeed a beautiful sight.

Now, tragically, an incremental Tiananmen is underway in the former British colony. As Joe Biden’s presidency was finally confirmed, more than 50 leading democrats – representatives of people in Hong Kong – were being rounded up under Beijing’s oppressive National Security Law, rather than being allowed to stand in free and fair elections.   

It is not hard to rebut Beijing’s loathsome finger-pointing, but the direction of travel it is proclaiming can’t be easily dismissed.

The teleology of American supremacy has received a shattering blow. From the implosion of Soviet Communism in 1989 to Barack Obama’s triumphant re-election in 2012, the conceit of the Western world has been that the United States and its market system represent the model of political success and human self-government that all societies will move towards.

In the name of democracy, however, democracy was hollowed-out. Despite the growing extremes of inequity and insecurity, challenges to the hegemony of the system from the left that called for fairness, security and inclusion were marginalised. Voters, rightly, felt increasingly powerless. Their passions were drawn on to subvert the traditional order from within, by a politics that became known as Trump and Brexit. 

At first, this assault on their own world order by the two Anglo-Saxon powers baffled foreign governments. As it persisted, authoritarians everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. If the core values of representative democracy – the rule of law; freedom of speech and assembly; honest, regular elections – leads to government by people who hate government and are therefore very bad at it, then what the hell.

Today they are cracking open the champagne.

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