Beijing Stays Silent as U.S. Awaits Election Results

As the United States waits for the substantive results of the 2020 presidential election, official Chinese channels are staying quiet. On U.S. election day, censorship authorities ordered media to follow the lead of state outlets, and to guard against anti-U.S. sentiment online. When asked for comment during a Wednesday, November 4 press conference, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said only, “We notice that the U.S. presidential election is still ongoing, and the result hasn’t come out yet.” Online, however, many Chinese are closely following the election. At Whats On Weibo Manya Koetse this week traced Chinese netizens shifting perceptions of Trump and Biden:

Donald Trump is often nicknamed Chuān Jiànguó (川建国) on Chinese social media, which basically means “Build the Country Trump.” The name is just one among many existing memes and jokes about the U.S. president on the Chinese internet. A reason to call him Chuān Jiànguó is to make fun of Trump’s words and actions, suggesting that his leadership only brings America down and in doing so, also further accelerates the rise of China. In doing so, Trump is sarcastically called “America’s gift to China.”

[…]An online poll that was held by a popular Weibo blogger earlier this year asked people if they would like to see Trump be reelected. Of the 8736 people participating, 74% said they hoped Donald Trump gets elected again. Only 5% said they hoped he would not be reelected. Another 21% said they felt indifferent about the American elections, as it would not make much difference for China anyway.

Although many people do care about the American elections, mostly because of how the outcome would affect China, others just enjoy watching the spectacle of U.S. politics. “I love how confident and unruly Trump is,” one commenter writes: “He is legendary. If Biden comes to power, the coming four years are going to be much more boring.” [Source]

Despite the public’s interest in the election, Chinese media outlets have been noticeably quiet. It is characteristic for Beijing to instruct media outlets to be circumspect in their coverage of foreign elections. Despite state media’s normal “love to chronicle an America in chaos,” David Wertime notes that this year outlets are even “refraining from predictions and limiting coverage to major developments like the early voting turnout.”

Last month when President Trump was hospitalized with coronavirus, censors ordered media outlets to keep reports brief, factual, and off of the trending lists. Chinese coverage from RFA notes that the Chinese media narrative on the election seems focused on images of chaos “bordering on civil war” rather than coverage of the vote. At Foreign Policy, Tracy Wen Liu wrote on the circumstances behind Chinese media silence:

Politically sensitive topics—especially around foreign relationships—tend to produce limited and nervous coverage in China. That’s backed up by my conversations with reporters in Chinese state media. A reporter from one state-linked outfit told me that months ago they were told to be very careful about covering this election and to ensure the coverage was “calm,” “neutral,” and “appropriate.” They were advised to not publish an excessive number of articles on this matter and to avoid live election results that might draw a lot of public attention—and most importantly, to be very cautious about their wording so that their stance wasn’t read as that of the Chinese government.

“My pitch on battleground states was rejected by the chief editor, since if we imply that a particular candidate might win the swing states, readers might interpret it as China supporting them, and even worse, readers might interpret it as China trying to interfere with the election,” the reporter said. [Source]

Chinese STEM students are closely following the election, as a Trump victory is a bad sign for Chinese graduate students studying in the U.S. From April to September, the U.S. granted only 808 F-1 visas to Chinese students, down 99% from the 90,410 visas granted in 2019 during the same period. At Nikkei Asia, Nikki Sun, Marrian Zhou, and Alex Fang interviewed a Chinese student pursuing a PhD in the U.S.:

Jack Cai, who is studying for a doctorate in computer science in the U.S., is considering returning to China after graduation.

“If Trump is reelected and it gets more difficult to live here in terms of visas and safety, I might as well just return to China,” Cai said. While the scholar in his 20s prefers the U.S. work culture to China’s “996” — where tech industry employees work nine hours a day, six days a week, the thought of “not having to listen to Trump” has become a big draw for Cai.

If Trump is elected, Cai expects more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students like him to return, boosting near-term technological development and university teaching standards in China. [Source]

Chinese “America-watchers” looking for the inside scoop on the election have turned their attention to the Yiwu wholesale market in Zhejiang province, whose merchants have become augurs in our globalized age. At The New York Times, Keith Bradsher wrote on the “Yiwu Index,” a highly unscientific prognostication of who will win the American presidential election:

President Trump’s campaign paraphernalia — hats, banners, mugs and practically anything else that can carry a logo — has been selling briskly at shops in the vast wholesale market in the Chinese city of Yiwu. By contrast, shop owners said during recent visits, bulk orders for materials supporting former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. have been almost nonexistent.

“We’ve had four or five shoppers for Trump materials each month,” said Ge Lu, a salesman at one of about 100 shops specializing just in flags, referring to big purchasers who buy banners by the thousands. “We’ve had one Biden shopper this year.”

It is also home to what Chinese watchers of American politics — a nervous group these days, given souring relations between the two countries and Beijing’s tighter limits on conversation — call the Yiwu Index. Big demand for a presidential candidate’s merchandise, goes the theory, translates into big voter turnout in November. [Source]


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