Forget Trump vs. Biden—Election Day chaos may be best outcome for Beijing

November 2, 2020, 10:01 AM UTC

U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have jostled with one another to be seen by American voters as tougher on China. Beijing, meanwhile, is choosing to not signal which candidate it prefers.

Former Vice President Biden has pledged to be stronger than Trump in calling out China’s human rights violations and has said that Trump’s trade policies with China have been a failure.

“[Trump] talks about these great trade deals. He talks about the art of the deal; China’s perfected the art of the steal,” Biden said at the first U.S. presidential debate in September.

Trump has repeatedly said that China wants Democratic nominee Joe Biden to win. In August, he claimed on Twitter to have information that “Chinese State Media” and “Leaders of CHINA” want Biden to beat him, though he did not cite specific evidence.

Earlier in August, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence William Evanina said that China “prefers” a Biden win because it viewed Trump as too “unpredictable.” Attorney General William Barr and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien later claimed that China’s attempts to interfere in the election on Biden’s behalf posed a greater threat to election security than Russia’s attempts to help Trump. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat, refuted that conclusion, saying it was “flat-out false” that China posed a greater election threat than Russia.

In response to the accusations, Beijing touted what it says is a long-standing policy of staying out of the politics of other countries.

“Unlike the U.S., China doesn’t have the meme of interfering in others’ domestic affairs, nor is it interested or willing to do so,” Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a September press conference. “[U.S. politicians] can by all means save this game for themselves. We don’t ever want to be part of it.”

Likewise, Chinese state media, which often acts as a messaging tool for Beijing, has remained largely silent on which candidate it wants to win as Election Day nears. Chinese coverage has instead played up negative attributes of both candidates while raising questions about America’s electoral process. For Chinese state media, it seems, the winner of the bitter contest may matter less than how starkly the election reveals cracks in the U.S.’s democratic system.

Chaos, corruption

In the past week, Chinese state media have published several stories that play up the chaos of the U.S.’s electoral process.

“NYC stores boarding up in anticipation of election day turmoils, riots,” said one headline in Xinhua, China’s state-backed news wire.

Such coverage aligns with China’s media strategy ahead of Election Day to magnify the shortcomings of the U.S.’s democratic processes, says King-wa Fu, an associate professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong.

Showcasing “the negative sides of democracy” in the U.S. is not reserved for the election, Fu said. Throughout this year, Chinese media have been quick to highlight the U.S.’s failure to adequately respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and protests over racial injustice, he says.

For the election specifically, media coverage has highlighted issues like partisan battles and problems with voting as a way to draw contrast to—in Beijing’s view—China’s more stable governing system.

“In the last few months, [Chinese state media] have highlighted the more corrupted parts of the [election] process, chaotic parts of the debates, and misinformation and disinformation campaigns,” Fu says. The “general impression” Chinese readers get from state media election coverage is that the U.S.’s electoral process is “chaotic and corrupt,” Fu says.

(By contrast, China does not hold elections on a national level. Rather, since 1982, its National People’s Congress has selected Presidents to serve two five-year terms. In 2018, the Congress abolished term limits for President Xi Jinping after his first five-year term in office, raising the possibility that he will remain in power for life.)

No preference

Chinese state media has drawn attention to negative stories about each U.S. presidential candidate, but it has been careful not to show preference for either one.

“I don’t really see a bias toward a certain candidate,” Fu says. He explained that negative stories, like the New York Times’ investigation into Trump’s tax returns and the New York Post’s loosely sourced allegations about Biden’s son Hunter have gained more traction in Chinese media than positive stories about either candidate.

Hu Xijin, the editor of the state-backed nationalist tabloid the Global Times, is a lone exception. Hu says he supports Trump’s reelection because it will hasten the U.S.’s demise.

“I strongly urge American people to reelect Trump… [Trump and his officials] help China strengthen solidarity and cohesion in a special way. It’s crucial to China’s rise,” Hu said on Twitter in July.

Hu’s newspaper officially has taken a more neutral stance. On Sunday, the Global Times argued that U.S.-China relations have been damaged to the point that neither Biden nor Trump could improve relations between the two countries.

“Today, the U.S.’s new China policy has been shaped at the strategic level, and China-U.S. relations will enter a fairly long period of stalemate,” the Global Times wrote in an editorial. “All in all, U.S. elections are not that important to China.”