The world’s attention continues to be fixated on the hotly contested U.S. presidential election, and Chinese media is no exception. China may not have been a prominent foreign policy topic during the election campaign. Still, Chinese state media and social media are heavily invested in the outcome of the election.
State news agency Xinhua acknowledged Biden’s victory on Sunday with a headline “Biden declares victory after divided election, Trump refuses to concede defeat.” “Several US media announced that Biden won the US election,” the state-owned Beijing News reported on Monday.
The same day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin responded to Joe Biden’s win by outlining Beijing’s take on the relationship: “China’s position on relevant issues is consistent and clear. China is firmly determined to safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests. We always hold that China and the US should manage existing differences on the basis of mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs to achieve the sound and steady development of bilateral relations. We hope the new administration will work together with China in the same direction.”
That is similar to the pre-election remarks made by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, as quoted by Xinhua: “I hope this election will proceed smoothly. China’s attitude towards Sino-US relations is clear and consistent. Although there are differences between China and the United States, there are also extensive common interests and room for cooperation.”
Overall, narratives in the state media have focused on the underlying social anxieties and divisions that have been on display during the U.S. election season. Four themes have stood out in Chinese state media’s reporting on the polls: The chaotic nature of the U.S. electoral process; the role of far-right extremism; the issue of race in the election; and the high cost associated with U.S. elections.
“Over the years, the US has worked hard but has made no progress at mobilizing voters to vote. Only when people think that politics has affected their daily lives will they actively participate in voting and express their wish,” a Beijing News editorial said.
“Due to the issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, political polarization, and racial conflicts, the 2020 US election is extremely complex, intense, and full of uncertainty,” another editorial in Xinhua said.
An editorial by state-owned China Daily claimed, “Cities are bracing for possible riots. Shop owners are shielding their glass windows with plywood or something more solid. And there are reports of people stocking up on ammunition to defend their homes if necessary.”
“China-bashing might have fueled the election campaigns, but it will not help the US adapt to the profound changes transforming the world. Instead, it will only anchor it to the past,” a different editorial in China Daily said.
Chinese state media has published multiple stories of protests, but some of these stories don’t have any direct connection to the U.S. election. The focus on protests fits an old narrative of Chinese media about politics and society in the United States. But currently, the state media mainly focused on incidents related to far-right groups.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po reported a story about four members of the “Proud Boys” group being stabbed in Washington, D.C. during an argument with protesters.
The editorials in state media repeated the narrative that even if Joe Biden becomes the president, the United States’ political system will continue to be riddled with turmoil.
“Polarization and opposition plant the seeds of potential violence. Google searches for ‘election violence’ and ‘coup d’état’ have risen rapidly since the 3rd,” stated an opinion article in People’s Overseas Network. This article was also shared on WeChat.
One of CCTV’s broadcasted panel discussions on the U.S. election opined that the result of the election hadn’t been released yet and it could take longer. “The long delay in election results has increased the risk of social unrest in the United States,” the CCTV panel concluded.
The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, didn’t prominently publish U.S. election-related stories, though it did share some of the reports published by Xinhua. The South China Morning Post had reported that the Chinese military was told to steer clear of U.S. election coverage to avoid being misread as taking sides, according to military sources.
The People’s Liberation Army’s media network did publish one story, based on reporting in the U.S. media, under the headline “U.S. media believe that the United States will inevitably be in chaos after the election.”
While state media may have had political reasons for covering (or not covering) the elections, the Chinese public was also clearly hungry for information. The search phrase “CNN host mocks Trump” reached the second-most searched term on Chinese language search engine Baidu, featuring in over 4.44 million searches. On November 6, the top five search terms on Baidu were related to the U.S. elections.
The U.S. election generated immense interest on Chinese social media platforms such as Sina Weibo and WeChat. The hashtag “U.S. general election” was used by 14.3 million users to create an original post on Weibo. The hashtag was viewed 9.65 billion times and discussed over 1.68 million times. The prominent use of the hashtag “U.S. general election” on Weibo was reported by the Global Times.
On Weibo, the hashtag “U.S. elections spend record amount of money” was the sixth-place trend and growing. Chinese state media have also published articles about the high cost of conducting elections in the U.S.
Multiple prominent Weibo accounts such as Sina Military network shared CNN’s “Race for the White House” documentary series along with the hashtag “U.S. general election.” Some Weibo users asked what was taking the swing states so long to announce the final vote count.
The hashtag “Trump campaign sues in 3 swing states” was the number one trend on Weibo on November 5.
The hashtag “Georgia will recount” rose to the number one trend on Weibo on November 6. Another hashtag “Pennsylvania will recount” trended in second place and was viewed by more than 2.5 million Weibo users, as of the time of writing. On November 6, another hashtag, “Biden in Pennsylvania overtakes Trump,” began trending on Weibo.
Weibo users also shared memes that mocked Trump as well as Joe Biden. In one such meme, Joe Biden was shown as strong-arming Trump. Another meme shows Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen together with luggage in their hands, as Trump tells Tsai “re-election seems hopeless, let’s run away!”
Chinese state media have actively reported every twist and turn in the U.S. election. The state-owned publication The Paper shared stories about the likely recount of votes in Georgia and Pennsylvania within a few hours of U.S. media reporting them. But with the election all but over, Beijing has been slower to officially respond than other countries.
“China hasn’t congratulated Biden on his victory as quickly as Western countries did. I think it’s because China needs to keep larger distance from the US presidential election to avoid getting entangled in its controversy. This actually shows that China respects the US as a whole,” Global Times’ Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin tweeted.
In response to a reporter’s question about whether China will congratulate Biden, spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, “[W]e will follow international customary practices.”
On Monday, the search term “A comprehensive analysis of Biden’s three foreign policies toward China” was the second trending topic on Baidu. The phrase was based on a story in Beijing News about the direction Biden’s China policy could take.
Aadil Brar is a freelance journalist whose has appeared in Devex, BBC, Quint, and other publications.