Trans-Pacific View | Politics | East Asia

China’s Big Brother Is Watching Your Democratic Process

Elections have consequences, and so do electoral uncertainties.

By Weifeng Zhong for
China’s Big Brother Is Watching Your Democratic Process
Credit: Unsplash

As recounts and legal battles look set to ensue after the 2020 U.S. presidential election, one of the deeply interested parties quietly watching events unfold is China. The United States’ democratic process had better look strong in front of the Chinese government’s all-seeing eye. This requires two steps: First, President Donald Trump ought to be able to state his case on any election irregularities or voter fraud in the courts. But second, if the courts confirm that he did legitimately lose, the president ought to ensure a peaceful and unequivocal transfer of power with graciousness. Anything short of that would project weakness in American democracy to audiences around the globe.

And make no mistake, China’s Big Brother will be watching.

It’s anybody’s guess as to whom China wanted to win the election, but the bottom line is that it cares very much. It cares so much so that its state media have been unusually quiet about it.

Imagine your only news source is the People’s Daily, China’s version of Pravda, and you start turning the pages on Election Day. You wouldn’t even realize that the United States had an election until two days later, and it would be seven days before you learned that the Chinese government has no opinion to offer on Joe Biden’s victory — until it did a few more days later.

But back in 2000, when the electoral outcome was shrouded by uncertainties, China’s official newspaper covered the Florida recount with the passion of a tabloid chasing Hollywood stars. From Election Day to Al Gore’s eventual concession, the People’s Daily ran 41 articles about the fallout, often with details of the proceedings from the federal district court in Florida up to the U.S. Supreme Court. All that coverage occurred when China was nowhere near competing with the United States for power on the global stage like it is today.

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In contrast, Beijing’s silence right now is pronounced, not because China doesn’t care, but because it’s approaching the issue with unusual caution. It may seem strange to American eyes, though this behavior is typical for socialist media. In his classic 1950 book, “Public Opinion in Soviet Russia,” sociologist Alex Inkeles gave a lucid account of the Soviet press, a model that China follows to this day: News is a process called “socialist construction,” and events are considered news not when they first take place, but when they can be meaningfully related to that process.

In today’s China, there’s no process more important than the country’s rise on the global stage and its strategic competition with the United States. To track China’s top priorities, my research team developed the open-source Policy Change Index project, which analyzes the narrative of China’s propaganda and predicts its next moves. As we have shown, China’s oversea aggressions under President Xi Jinping today can be traced back to former President Hu Jintao’s signature “harmonious society” initiative in 2005, which slowed down market reforms and, instead, started flexing the government’s muscles at home and abroad.

So, what happens when the Chinese government perceives events that have yet to fit into its ongoing “construction,” such as the uncertainties surrounding this U.S. election? It stays silent.

This quiet observation from the Chinese Communist Party means that how this election unfolds will have long-term ramifications for U.S.-China relations. American democracy would look weak if a losing candidate with at least some legal standing does not have a day in court or if the defeated candidate doesn’t then concede. From that, more of China’s foreign aggression and influence campaign would follow, because the moment you are perceived as weak, you are weak.

The United States after the 2000 election became stronger. During the heated battles between the Gore and Bush campaigns, China’s official newspaper coverage was exceptionally objective and thorough, down to which judge said what during which trial. It made only one attempt to discredit the U.S. democratic process by calling it “a political soap opera” — that no longer works. Perhaps the idea didn’t fly, because that narrative never came back.

When Gore eventually accepted the outcome, the People’s Daily even ran a piece detailing his concession speech, including his joke that “I wouldn’t call him back this time,” referring to his election-night concession to Bush that was later retracted. As the democratic process unfolded, the Chinese government not only perceived U.S. strength, it documented it in its own paper.

Elections have consequences, and so do electoral uncertainties. In front of us lies perhaps the greatest opportunity to demonstrate U.S. soft power to the world: Let a fair process run its course, and the nation will emerge from it even stronger. This is what both sides of the political aisle should want China’s Big Brother to see — yet again.

Weifeng Zhong is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a core developer of the open-sourced Policy Change Index project, which uses machine-learning algorithms to predict authoritarian regimes’ major policy moves by “reading” their propaganda.