Flags of China and the United States
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A state of uncertainty: China’s reaction to US election betrays its fears

As Chinese nationalists capitalize on political uncertainty in the United States following the presidential elections, the schadenfreude belies deeper-seated political anxiety about what a Biden win will mean for China, says Valarie Tan.

When Joe Biden won enough votes to be declared the winner of the 2020 US elections, parts of the world celebrated and breathed a sigh of relief that statesmanship and rationality will soon be restored to the White House. In China, the nationalists got to work.

After Biden delivered his victory speech at Delaware, the hyper-nationalistic Global Times continued to report that election results had not yet been officially finalized. That was factually correct, but it also demonstrated a deliberate reluctance to recognize Biden’s victory, which at the time was also reflected at the very top. In an unprecedented move, President Xi Jinping did not congratulate the President-elect – even though many other world leaders had done so – until five days after Biden had crossed the 270 electoral vote threshold.

Biden presidency will cut both ways

One explanation offered by Chinese state media for China’s initial hesitation is that congratulating Biden might trigger an unstable Trump to unleash “final madness” on China during his last weeks in office. Bilateral relations between the world’s two biggest economies have sunk to historical lows under four years of Trump, which begs the question: why has China not taken the opportunity to acknowledge Biden’s win and re-start the relationship on a more conciliatory note?

China has good reasons to be concerned with Biden’s win, since it is a double-edged sword. His China approach is likely to be less chaotic than Trump. There are prospects for China and the United States to cooperate in important areas such as climate change. But unlike Trump, Biden is expected to seek partnerships with US allies and international organizations – the very actors that Trump isolated – for a more powerful multilateral global approach to confront China.

Making the most of America’s uncertainty

At the time of writing, votes are still being counted and Trump, who has refused to leave the White House, has launched a series of lawsuits claiming electoral fraud. The election result has also been rejected by the Republicans, who have a majority in the Senate.

So, Beijing is bracing itself for the political uncertainty unfolding in America. But state propaganda has already pounced on the opportunity to play up the turmoil in the United States to serve Beijing’s nationalist agenda.  

Instead of acknowledging that Biden had garnered enough votes to be declared winner of the presidential race, official Chinese state media outlets Xinhua and People’s Daily chose to report it as the American media that had projected Biden the victor. While factually correct, the emphasis on the “American media”, and not US electoral rules, was a deliberate attempt by Chinese state propaganda to downplay the legitimacy of the results.

Chinese government news outlets have been fixated on headlining the US election as "an utter mess”, with pictures of rioters clashing with police in the streets. State broadcaster CCTV gave much airtime to footage of demonstrations to highlight the chaos of American democracy. People’s Daily ran an op-ed calling attention to the record sums of money spent by both candidates in the election and denounced the US electoral process as “ridiculous money politics”. In a graphic explainer about the American presidential elections, Xinhua News played up the many flaws of the US electoral process. It highlighted the high threshold for voter eligibility and derided US democracy as "benefitting the capitalists”.

Schadenfreude runs rife

On China’s social media, some users gloated at the unrest. One exclaimed, “A civil war is about to begin”. Another added, “What a beautiful day!” Yet another proclaimed, “America has fallen apart. […] Truly, God bless China!”

Under an article about Trump challenging the election results, users commented that they want the "good show" to continue.

If such sarcasm and criticism were directed at the Chinese leadership and China’s form of governance, it would be taken off-line immediately and the authors severely punished. But the Chinese Communist Party has deliberately allowed users the freedom to express themselves when painting American politics in a negative light.

The reason for doing so is that this outpouring aids two major narratives in China’s propaganda. The first is the narrative that America is in decline and its political system is no longer aspirational, from which the conclusion is reached that China’s one-party autocracy based on consensus is superior. The second narrative is that America wants to contain the peaceful rise of China and therefore the Chinese people must unite and stay patriotic to fend off the enemy.

Beyond the crowing, China is wary

Ultimately, Beijing is genuinely concerned that the Biden presidency means tougher times for China. That is why Beijing is harnessing nationalism to shore up support for the party’s regime. In an article published by the Global Times, writers interviewed the owner of the noodle shop in Beijing that Biden visited in 2011 and quoted him as calling Biden “an old friend”. But the same article also issued a stark warning: “US' antagonistic policies toward China will not stop, no matter who the president is.”