Every morning since September, Frank Fu has started the day with a cup of coffee and news about the US presidential election. Fu, 45, a business analyst with an American financial institution in Beijing, has never been so keen to follow an election.
Although he lives behind “the Great Firewall” along with most of China’s 1.4 billion people, whose access to foreign media is largely blocked, Fu tries to form a picture of what future US-China trade relations will look like despite the mostly censored and limited information available domestically.
“As far as I know, many Chinese like me have an unprecedented interest in the election because China’s fate will be more intertwined with the United States and the next president will be a key person for [America’s] China policy,” Fu said. “I’m not deterred by the limited amount of information we can get here from Chinese media.”
China-US relations have plummeted to their lowest in decades as tensions have escalated over trade, technology, security, defence and human rights since US President Donald Trump took office in 2017.
Trump has called it “the most important election in the history of our country” and China is among the nations watching with keen interest. It is widely believed the election results will have significant consequences for years to come for relations between the world’s two largest economies.
“There’s no poll on how many Chinese care about the US presidential election, but based on my observations, attention from the public is unprecedentedly high in China this time,” said Zhan Jiang, a professor with the School of International Journalism and Communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Chinese pundits are divided on whether the country will benefit more from a US administration led by Trump or by former vice-president Joe Biden, the Democratic Party candidate, according to Zhan and other experts who spoke to the South China Morning Post.
A second Trump term would bring a continuation of trade disputes, technology rivalry, diplomatic acrimony and near-daily accusations against China on issues ranging from human rights to the environment and the South China Sea, but is likely to push Beijing to undergo reforms and open to the world – a result that would be welcomed by the country’s liberals.
Under Biden, the US may move closer to its allies and re-engage with international organisations that might make demands of China. But Biden would bring a level of predictability and normalcy, and smooth the negotiation and cooperation channels with China, according to experts.
“I think state media nowadays does not play a big role in forming public opinion because few people read [the state media outlets] and they have little coverage of the election, with limited comments about the candidates,” Zhan said. “Meanwhile, Beijing seems to be quite tolerant of social media sharing of election news and video footage from the US this time.”
With US officials alleging that China is interfering in the electoral process, Beijing is wary of being perceived to favour one candidate or the other. State mouthpieces People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency have carried few original reports about the election.
Both toe the official line, echoing what the foreign ministry has said to warn both the Democrats and Republicans not to make China an issue, saying both sides “hyped up the China threat to build a tough image of safeguarding American interests”.
State-run English-language broadcaster CGTN has not had any live coverage of election events. It has mainly joined social media users in sharing video clips from the presidential debates on Weibo, China’s Twitter.
Nationalist tabloid Global Times has also acted with restraint, but its outspoken editor-in-chief Hu Xijin has instead voiced his “personal views” on Twitter.
“I strongly urge American people to re-elect Trump because his team has many crazy members like [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo,” he tweeted on June 24. “They help China strengthen solidarity and cohesion in a special way. It’s crucial to China’s rise. As a [Communist Party] member, I thank them.”
A senior editorial source with one state media organisation told the Post that Beijing did not want to take sides given that neither candidate was expected to make fundamental changes to Washington’s policy to contain the rise of China.
“So the coverage from state media is quite limited, allowing public attention to fall on farcical social media posts instead,” the media source said.
Fu, the business analyst, said he tried to refrain from indulging in social media posts mocking candidates but also to resist the nationalistic narrative of some state media commentaries.
“As I read more, I’ve had to try harder to steer clear of the biases,” he said. “In the end, I decided to read less and talk more frequently to friends and colleagues in the US. It seems to be a much better way to understand the real situation.”
To Zhang Xuanliang, a 51-year-old Beijing taxi driver, news about the election is a great conversation topic with his passengers. His company lectures workers not to “talk nonsense” about China’s politics but Zhang is free to talk about American politics and he has found “funny things” about the candidates to be a source of entertainment.
“It’s quite hilarious to hear Trump call Biden by various nicknames. It’s also fascinating that they expose each other’s [alleged] scandals in public,” Zhang said.
“These things are unimaginable in China. How can a would-be president recover after being accused of such scandals? It’s a farce and it shouldn’t be allowed,” he said. “No wonder the US is ruled so terribly and has allowed the coronavirus to kill so many Americans. It should learn from China to keep everything in order and contain the pandemic as forcefully as it can.”
Since the virus surfaced in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, a blame game has worsened already strained relations between China and the US. The Trump administration has criticised the Communist Party for early missteps and cover-ups, while Beijing has accused Washington of mismanagement and failing to take the pandemic seriously.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said at a meeting in Beijing last month that “the major strategic achievement gained from China’s fight against Covid-19 fully demonstrated the remarkable advantages of the leadership of the Communist Party of China”.
The top leader’s view won heartfelt approval from Zhang, the taxi driver.
“China did the best around the world in combating the coronavirus crisis. I really don’t understand why the US repeatedly attacks China on this issue. By controlling the pandemic, the Communist Party convinced me of its capability to lead Chinese people to stability and prosperity,” he said.
He may also have been won over by Xi’s nationalistic and pointed speech last week, as the country marked 70 years since Chinese troops entered the Korean war against American forces. It was delivered as Trump and Biden were facing off in a final debate, sparring over who would better tackle the challenges of a rising China. Xi was at the ceremony in Beijing, warning the US that China did not fear war.
Chen Daoyin, an independent political scientist, said state media was focused on promoting the narrative that China’s socialist system was superior to Western democracy, and that Beijing feared no one. A key theme of its coverage was exposing the “hypocrisy” of the Western political system, he said.
“The Chinese Communist Party is using this opportunity to claim legitimacy as [China] is the only major economy expected to see growth this year after it brought the pandemic under control,” Chen said. “Disorder, violence or [allegations of] cheating in the US elections are being used to create a contrast with China as stable and orderly, and to show the drawbacks of the Western political system.”
For Peggy Jiang, a senior manager with an internet company in Beijing, the election has been a chance to give her young son a sense of Western democracy.
“It may be common for kids in the US to say they want to be president when they grow up, but most Chinese kids never dream of that. Although we’re living in an authoritarian country, I’d like my son to know about Western democracy,” Jiang said, adding that she plans to send him to school in the US, where he was born.
But clips found online from the first Trump-Biden debate in September were an unedifying sight, even for a five-year-old, as Trump constantly interrupted Biden during the chaotic showdown.
“My son was astonished. He pointed at Trump, calling him rude,” Jiang said. “It was not the kind of eloquent, elegant debate I was hoping to impress my kid with. He refused to watch it so I gave up.”
Jiang said she had heard the final debate was better because the microphones were muted at times, so that each candidate could speak without interruptions.
“Anyway, I didn’t manage to get my son to watch them this time, but I didn’t want to risk it being a bad influence,” she said. “And that’s probably why the Communist Party has been comfortable with election-related footage being shared online.”
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.