The United States’ democracy had a heart attack on Wednesday.
Inside and outside of the US Capitol, doors and windows were broken, tear gas flared, guns were waved and fired. Five people, including a police officer, died at the sanctuary of US-style elections where Congress was executing its supreme power to confirm the next presidency after yearlong poll battles.
Sadly, a similar flurry of violence overwhelmed the Legislative Council building of China’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region on July 1, 2019, though there were luckily no direct deaths thanks to gun control. But escalated violence in the following months saw an elderly man having bricks thrown at him, leading to his death, another elderly man had oil poured on his body and was set on fire, and other residents and police officers were injured.
Yet the responses of US politicians are striking. According to their definition, the people storming the Capitol were rioters, criminals and domestic terrorists, but those in Hong Kong were “freedom fighters” and “democracy saviors” repeatedly lauded by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Vice-President Mike Pence quickly cut himself away from supporters of his election partner. But in 2019, he sent at least one message to Hong Kong protesters: “We stand with you. We are inspired by you.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned the violence and rampage at and around her office, but in 2019 simply described Hong Kong rioting as “a beautiful sight to behold”.
In their eyes, the lawbreakers in the US are rioters to be prosecuted, while those in Hong Kong should be free or granted visas after they failed to advance to power with US support. Police in the US are heroes to be honored, while Hong Kong police are suppressers to be sanctioned.
The violence at the US Capitol is categorized as a riot or near-sedition, but is seen as a revolution in Hong Kong.
One reminder of this is the US preference for so-called democracy in other countries exhibited after they became sovereign states, despite the fundamental United Nations principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries.
Hypocrisy? Double standards? No, US politicians say, because their system is not only the lighthouse on Earth, but also the single model for all others to learn from and follow.
But that supposed lighthouse in Washington is blurred in tear gas. Hours after diving to safety, US politicians erupted with bombast against a president who has refused to concede defeat.
Their red line is clear now. Once Capitol Hill is under siege, political heavyweights savoring unrest elsewhere will reveal their true colors and unleash all their weight against “rioters”.
Laying the blame at the feet of an outgoing president is convenient, logical and legitimate. It may stem blood loss from the Capitol to regain certain vitality for the system, but it cannot cure the artery arrest in US democracy that galvanizes social divide.
Apparently, millions of Americans think differently. Based on a November poll by The Economist and You-Gov, some 88 percent of the respondents who voted for Donald Trump believed the presidential race was plagued with fraud and that he should not concede defeat.
In a fair election, each vote is equal. But US elections are never meant for popular votes to decide the winner. Al Gore and Hillary Clinton know it best.
Even when both Joe Biden and Trump set historic records in winning more votes than any other US presidential candidate in history at one of the highest voter turnout rates at 66.7 percent, the rest of the 79 million people in the US somehow had not had their voices heard.
The storming of the Capitol proves once again that US-style elections further rent apart society. The announced absence of a defiant but losing US president at the upcoming inauguration of his successor, who in an offbeat manner agreed and dubbed it as “good”, further illuminates the dysfunctional system once held out as the standard to which other countries should aspire.
Moreover, the constant push of its own people to extreme ends by way of a two-party political rock and roll can yield temporary corrections but often leads to more chaos, augmenting the risk of eventually turning society upside down.
All this keeps us from the larger truth. Some US politicians are juggling and wrangling to keep their power over millions of people at home and billions abroad, only to serve the very few who finance them at the cost of the vast majority’s interests.
What the US needs is not just refurbishment of Capitol Hill, but the whole genre of politics in Washington, DC. The real tragedy would be the inability of a narcissist US to change for the common good.
Whether US politicians can, when they realize their limits and locate a cure for malfunction so as to rehabilitate US governance remains a mystery.
The author is a China Daily journalist based in Hong Kong.