How China Saw the First U.S. Presidential Debate

Despite Chinese authorities’ attempts to limit accessibility to online streams of the first presidential debate between and on Monday, many in China managed to follow the long anticipated and record-breaking televised event. At Business Insider, Louise Liu describes the variety of methods utilized, and why authorities may have attempted to mitigate interest in the debate:

Two of China’s biggest news websites, Caixin Online and NetEase, put up live-streams of the debate, but internet regulators called for news outlets to shut down their streams shortly after the debate began. Meanwhile, Sina Weibo, China’s biggest social media platform, lived-streamed the entire debate without incident. The stream, which is still available, received more than 40,000 likes, 15,000 shares and 13,000 comments.

For Chinese people looking to follow on US-based sites, several were, surprisingly, not blocked by censors, according to Quartz, including CBS News, The Huffington Post, PBS, Telemundo, and Yahoo.

[…] The Chinese government has one major reason for censoring the debate live-streams, according to Kecheng Fang, a University of Pennsylvania doctoral student researching Chinese politics and the founder of CNPolitics.org, an independent website on Chinese politics.

“Letting the public know how works has its risks. People might start asking, ‘Why don’t we have our own debates?’ or, ‘Why can’t we choose our leader from the top two candidates?'” Fang told Business Insider. [Source]

While state media didn’t air the event, they did provide commentary, and netizens took advantage of the opportunity to ridicule both the two candidates and the state coverage of their debate. At Quartz, Zheping Huang and Echo Huang Yinyin report:

State newswire Xinhu accused Clinton of “playing the family card” by mentioning her grandchild in her opening remarks, then didn’t show the debate. Still, about 240,000 people viewed a page with the hashtag “US presidential Election” on Weibo, China’s Twitter.

The topic that got the most attention was Trump blaming China for taking jobs from the US, which was shown in a 5-minute clip posted by state newspaper China Daily on Weibo.

[…] Most Chinese internet users discussing the debates were making fun of the two candidates. “A quarrel between a grandpa and a granny can’t make things clear,” one Weibo user commented under a news post. “The better solution for them is to pull each others’ hair.” […]

[…] Viewers also appreciated the irony that state news was covering a democratic debate at all, given the country’s autocratic government doesn’t allow voting for national leaders. “I really don’t know why CCTV is concerned with this debate,” user What can Zhi do commented. “It’s like someone who doesn’t have a penis being jealous of his neighbor having sex.” [Source]

The Los Angeles Times’ Jessica Meyers and Jonathan Kaiman relay more comments from some of the over 118,000 users who streamed the debate on Weibo:

“Hillary’s lipstick fits her suit well,” one person wrote.

“Trump’s mouth is full of bull,” wrote another.

Some took the opportunity to offer suggestions for their own one-party political system or speculate on what each candidate would mean for China.

“China should elect its president this way,” somebody posted in a not-so-subtle dig at Communism.

“If Trump is elected, he will be like the president of the Philippines, who has a big mouth,” another wrote. “The world will become as thrilling as a roller coaster.”

“If Hillary is elected, she will continue her tough foreign policy towards China, but her husband will help to improve the economy. So our economy will be better too!” [Source]

CDT’s Anne Henochowicz has translated more debate commentary and follow-up comments from Weibo users, many of whom viewed the event as a “reality show” (真人秀):

Mengyitangchao (@梦遗唐朝): I thought Hillary and Trump’s debate was really sweet. Because from all my years of watching TV dramas, I know the guy and the girl who can’t stand each other at the very beginning always end up together!

Nashiyitiaoliulangmao (@那是一条流浪猫): This is an American show–you should add that after they get together they start having crazy sex [Chinese]

Xiangxiaopai (@向小排): A bunch of people without the right to vote watching other people’s election

Haidaojingen (@@亥刀金艮): Double victory for those two, total loss for America

Huajieyi (@花岕一): What do I care? It’s their election. We can’t participate, so why make it into such a big deal? We just have to know who’s running things. We ordinary people know already, so what about it? [Chinese]

Also see the BBC’s video coverage of a few Chinese reactions to the debate, the South China Morning Post’s coverage of Beijing-based ex-pats tuning in to the showdown at a Wudaokou cafe, or Sixth Tone on how life in China has affected some American expats’ views.

Unsurprisingly, China was mentioned several times in the debate, mostly by Donald Trump (who uttered the word “China” eleven times, compared to Hillary Clinton’s three). Despite Trump’s tendency to scapegoat China for the United States’ trade and economic woes, many ahead of the debate appeared to view the businessman more favorably than they did his opponent. TIME reports on a poll from state-run Global Times:

There are no reputable opinion surveys in China gauging the popularity of the two candidates vying for the U.S. presidency. But Chinese state-linked media have intimated that “many Chinese prefer Trump,” as the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party–linked newspaper wrote on Monday. The Global Times publicized a poll on its parent website that “showed that 83 percent of the 8,339 Chinese respondents believe Trump will win the election.” The poll was conducted in May and the respondents were a self-selecting group, limiting the survey’s capacity to act as a reliable gauge of public opinion.

Nevertheless, Chinese public support for Trump seems to originate from two camps: respect for him as a businessman and excitement about a fresh force in American politics. “Trump’s patriotism has allowed me to see that American politics is corrupt,” says a Chinese supporter who has formed local social-media groups praising the Republican candidate and goes by the online moniker Donald.J.Trump-The terminator of lies. “He exposed this ugly side of the American reality.”

Trump has repeatedly assailed China for its economic relationship with the U.S., claiming, as he did in Monday’s debate, that “they’re taking our jobs.” [Source]

In May, Global Times faced official censure for its editorializing on Trump, among other topics.

Quartz notes that several of the many untruths Trump rolled out on Monday evening were about China. Following the debate, an op-ed from Global Times criticizes Trump for his ignorance on China and ill-preparedness for the debate, while a People’s Daily poll shows that respondents now marginally prefer Clinton.

As many in China start paying closer attention to the U.S. election now that it finally enters its home stretch, The New York Times Cao Li talks to You Tianlong, co-founder of Xuanmei, a Chinese-language podcast aimed at helping curious Chinese listeners better understand the American political process:

What do Chinese get wrong about the American political process?

I feel that the biggest misunderstanding is that many Chinese take “House of Cards” too seriously. American politics is complicated, even for Americans. For many Chinese, it’s just too confusing. So people take a shortcut. “House of Cards’’ is so real for them that it filters their impressions of American politics.

Another misunderstanding is derived from the negative propaganda many Chinese have absorbed over the years, that is, that American politics is controlled by money or big capitalists and that politicians are just puppets controlled by capitalists. It’s possible that there are serious problems in American politics. But as far as plutocratic politics is concerned, it’s not as bad as people in China imagine.

On the other hand, some liberal intellectuals in China believe that the United States is good in every way. Its political system is good and its people’s voices are heard. They attribute every achievement of the United States to its superior political system.

I feel that many Chinese aren’t really observing American politics as much as they’re projecting their own biases onto American politics. [Source]