Morgan Ortagus
U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus speaks to VOA via Skype on May 21, 2020.

BEIJING - A Chinese effort to capitalize on the worldwide outrage over the death of a black man in police custody in the United States appears to have backfired on social media, with many Chinese “netizens” seizing the chance to point out the nation’s own history of abusive police behavior.

The social media tit-for-tat began with a Twitter posting from U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, who tweeted on May 30 about Chinese plans to impose a new security law on Hong Kong. Ortagus called for freedom-loving people around the world to “stand with the rule of law and hold to account the Chinese Communist Party,” referring to its broken promise to uphold the “one country, two systems” governing arrangement for 50 years after the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong to China.

Her counterpart in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, responded with a tweet of her own, saying, ”I can’t breathe” — a reference to words George Floyd said before he died in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Hua’s tweet sought to highlight what Chinese officials have portrayed as a hypocritical stance by the Trump administration, which has criticized China’s response to Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters as a violation of human rights.

But among Chinese netizens, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s comments were interpreted differently, as they replied on social media with images from the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to the police crackdown in Hong Kong in 2019.

“Hua Chuanying can breathe perfectly fine when petitioner Xu Chunhe was beaten to death by the police,” one tweet said. “She can breathe perfectly fine when three Chinese were killed in Zambia; she can breathe perfectly fine when thousands of people in Wuhan died from lack of information. Now there’s violence in protests in America, she can’t breathe.” As COVID-19, sped through Wuhan, Chinese authorities clamped down on references to it in news reports and on social media.

Other netizens posted videos of alleged brutal tactics by China’s secret police and Hong Kong police, including images reminiscent of what happened to Floyd. One showed a woman being pinned down with a knee to her throat; another showed a man being held down with a wooden stick.

After a decade, 'I still can’t breathe'

Li Ning, the daughter of petitioner Li Shulian, who died mysteriously in one of China’s unofficial detention centers — the so-called “black jails” — in 2009, told VOA that the phrase “I can’t breathe” has resonated with her.

“I can’t breathe after my mom died. It’s been a decade. Our family has been treated with injustice, not only me, my dad, my aunt, all of us feel like we can’t breathe,” she said.

Li has been petitioning the government to release details in her mother’s case for more than a decade, without success.

Her mother’s problems began when she became entangled in a lease dispute with a city government agency in the small town of Lukou in the eastern province of Shangdong.

The woman went to Beijing to petition her case before senior officials, but instead was detained by authorities and put into an unofficial detention center. These unofficial prisons, which are not subject to law, came into routine use in the years leading up to and following the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

In 2009, the Lukou police told Li Ning that her mother had committed suicide and offered the family $117,000 (800,000 RMB) in return for an agreement to have her mother cremated — a proposal Li Ning rejected.

Li Ning then started pushing for justice on her own, despite the long odds of success.

“I’ve been bound, gagged, detained during my own petitioning, so when I heard the police and officials offering their support for the protesters in the U.S., I was deeply moved,” she told VOA. She had seen images of American police and soldiers taking a knee in solidarity with protesters since Floyd’s death.

“[The] democratic system may not be perfect, but they certainly have a different way of dealing with social issues,” Li Ning said.