(Originally published here by the South China Morning Post on January 18, 2021.)
Picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, the catch-all charge often invoked by the authorities in Beijing to stifle dissent, was used against citizen journalist Zhang Zhan last month, sending her to prison for four years for her reporting on the coronavirus pandemic.
The move prompted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to rail against a Chinese Communist Party that “will do whatever it takes to silence those who question the party’s official line”.
The statement is no surprise, given that the US State Department has been a factory of anti-China pronouncements since Pompeo took over in 2018, but also warranted, given that the world needs to show support for courageous souls like Zhang.
Ironically though, the quarrels-and-trouble charge also appears to have been used by Trump appointees against Patsy Widakuswara, the Voice of America White House correspondent, who had the temerity to shout out a question to Pompeo after his address to the VOA and discussion with the broadcaster’s director Robert Reilly last week.
She was immediately demoted by Reilly after doing what any respectable journalist would have done: She asked what message Pompeo was sending to the world with his declaration, after the 2020 presidential election was called in Joe Biden’s favour, that he was preparing for a second Donald Trump term.
Michael Pack – appointed by President Donald Trump last year to head the agency that oversees the VOA and accused by US lawmakers in both parties of undermining Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement – helped set the scene at the VOA’s auditorium last week, with remarks that could be read as a mea culpa for the pro-Trump insurrection at the US Capitol.
Pack introduced Pompeo on January 11 by saying “there are regimes bent on preventing people from accessing objective news and information.
To keep power, they manufacture and propagate false realities, seeking to control thought, and belief, and ultimately action”. This, after Trump’s manufacture and propagation of false realities led to the action and tragic events of January 6.
The VOA journalists invited to Pompeo’s address might have expected an open discussion on how a mob of marauding pro-Trump hyenas were driven by the president’s evidence-free assertion of a rigged election to storm the Capitol.
But Widakuswara and others there heard no mention of the attack by Pompeo or Reilly. Instead, Pompeo suggested to the audience that they should spend more of their time spreading the message of American exceptionalism.
It’s one thing when politicians pull out the old chestnut about how America is the greatest country in the world. We’ve heard it from Republicans and Democrats, and from Trump and Biden, throughout their campaigns.
But you’d think that a country’s top diplomat would leave comments like “this is the greatest nation in the history of the world and the greatest nation that civilisation has ever known” to the politicians, analysts and historians.
The chasm between Pack’s and Pompeo’s rhetoric about the dictatorial nature of the Chinese Communist Party, and their fealty to a US president accused of inciting the most startling terrorist attack on the US government since 9/11 is too vast to process.
Whether it is Republicans’ efforts to suppress voter turnout or Democrats’ inability to acknowledge adequately the economic disparities that brought Trump to power in the first place, the VOA should not shy away from objective coverage of the issues.
To do so only eliminates the distinction between Washington’s government-funded news media and Beijing’s vast propaganda machinery.
And this shows the extent to which Pompeo has manufactured outrage in the form of constant anti-China proclamations to keep the press corps covering him too busy to point out how much the administration he defends acts like the regimes he condemns.
The significant difference between the circumstances that Zhang and Widakuswara find themselves in is that Zhang would have never had the opportunity to shout her questions out to the powers that be.
In not defending the integrity of the 2020 election against Trump’s baseless assertions, and not condemning the armed mob that made it to the doors of the House of Representatives and the Senate, Pompeo, Reilly and Pack showed whose side they are on.
Had Trump been given another four years, Pompeo and his ilk would have made certain that the VOA would sound a lot more like China Central Television. And Widakuswara would have been given a pink slip.