An African-American man shot in a stairwell. A Chinese-American cop charged in his death.
For the last week, the story of Akai Gurley and Peter Liang has captivated the U.S., sparking protests in dozens of cities and fueling what feels like an era-defining debate.
There's been a lot of thoughtful, raw and searching writing from people on all sides of the story. In a stand-out piece for the New York Times Magazine, Jay Kaspian Kang called it "the most pivotal moment in the Asian-American community since the Rodney King riots, when dozens of Korean-American businesses were burned to the ground."
This is and remains an American story about justice, privilege and race. But it is also becoming a China story. And as the conversation bounces from Brooklyn to Beijing and back again, it's worth listening to the echo, to see how it sounds as it's told and re-told by different people, in different ways.
News of Liang's conviction traveled quickly — thanks, in no small part, to a Chinese app called WeChat, or Weixin. WeChat is an addictive cross between a social network and a chat program. With foreign-made social media platforms like Facebook and Line banned in China, it has flourished in recent years, giving people a free and convenient way to communicate with friends and family, wherever they may be.
People use WeChat in a lot of ways: You can send your mom a voice message, post vacation pictures, link to articles or create groups — many, many groups. In the U.S. last weekend, people used this function to coordinate protests. They also posted articles, essays, pictures and petitions about the case. One Chinese-language article titled "helping Peter Liang, how and why" was re-posted more than 100,000 times and received more than two thousand likes.
The fact that people were communicating online about a major news event is not remarkable. Nor is it surprising that there are extensive ties between China and the U.S. What's interesting is how quickly the conversation took off in China — and that it was allowed to flourish at all.
China's zealous censors keep a close eye on information, be it newspaper articles, Weibo posts or WeChat groups. The WeChat community is large and vibrant, but it is also patrolled, to some extent, by the authorities on the look-out for mobilization or other content they don't like. In China, people who post material the government deems "sensitive" have had their accounts shuttered. Unwelcome content sometimes disappears, leaving empty pages or broken links.
With the organizing on U.S. soil and the debate focused on flaws in the U.S., not the Chinese, justice system, China's censors seemed happy to stand back. The case has since been featured extensively on CCTV, a Party-controlled television station, and in the flagship Communist Party papers.
China often complains about a "double standard" in how U.S. journalists write about China and believes Americans are hypocritical on human rights. The Liang case gave them a chance to call out the U.S. "Although the U.S. government loves to play the human rights card in the global arena, its inaction when it comes to this domestic issue surely calls that supposed superiority into question," said People's Daily.
Though many Asian-Americans bristle at the "model minority" stereotype, the Global Times, a state-backed newspaper, took the chance to praise Chinese-Americans as "model" citizens. "They work hard, pay taxes on time, they don't miss a credit card payment, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood and family," it said.
The piece ended by calling on Chinese-Americans to take a stand. "If they are motivated by Liang's case, they should start to make their voices heard, go into politics and fight for what's theirs."
As many Chinese netizens wryly noted, that call to "fight" would not be fit to print at home.
—Xu Jing reported from Beijing.