'Absurd!': How Chinese State-Run Media Covered the US Elections

Chinese-language media focused on the chaotic aspects of the elections with some outlets suggesting that a civil war may be looming.
November 4, 2020, 8:45pm
trump-china-media
A group of Chinese students who study at US universities watch online live coverage of the US presidential election at an apartment in Beijing on Nov. 4, 2020. GREG BAKER / AFP

As the world awaits the tight race to the presidency in the United States, thousands of miles away in China, the country's major news outlets have paid little attention to the actual policy platforms of the candidates – not even to their China policies. While it did track the progress of the presidential race and the candidates' campaign efforts, Chinese media largely focused on the turmoil that has surrounded the election, such as concerns about voter fraud, an unstable economy, mass protests often dubbed "riots," and U.S. President Donald Trump's coronavirus response, which has generally been portrayed as a fiasco. 

Coverage appeared biased against Trump, though mostly in online media, in alignment with analysis that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prefers a win for former vice president and Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Trump was often referred to as the "know-it-all" while Biden, though less common, was dubbed the "political evergreen tree."

If the coverage has been particularly critical of anything specifically however, it is of American politics as a whole. 

In the lead-up to the election, China Central Television (CCTV), which is the primary news broadcaster in mainland China, ran a seven-part series on their website entitled "seven things the U.S. has done to threaten global safety," spotlighting subjects like arms races, global carbon emissions, and excessive sanctioning. 

On election day, reporting centered around whether or not Trump would accept defeat should he lose, and the battles and protests that would follow if that was the case. CCTV's lead story on Wednesday was headlined, "States brace for riots. What is going to happen on election day?" Another story simply reported that swing states were key to determine the winner, and a third asked "Calm before the storm? White House strengthens its security as shops close down." 

The national tabloid Global Times' top election story read "Absurd! The president jumps the gun before the election results are out!" and reported that the Prime Minister of Slovenia had also called Trump's victory prematurely. 

"Following the Chinese media gives off the impression that not only is the election a brainless joke, so is the United States," said a University student from Beijing about his experience following Chinese news on the election. He wished to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal from his university and the government. 

"It's like the election is revealing the fall of the United States. They depict American politics as a gambling game," he told VICE News. "That though people have the right to vote, it won't change anything… In China, the American system is just seen as ineffective and chaotic, always making things complicated and impossible to solve."

According to Mark Boukes, assistant professor in Communications Science at the University of Amsterdam, the turmoil surrounding the election has handed the CCP a good opportunity to define their system of rule as a positive contrast to the United States, as more orderly and stable. They want to show the Chinese people "how things go wrong if everyone has the right to vote." The trend that Chinese state media increasingly depict Western countries as "failing rather than as succeeding," or "suffering rather than enjoying," has grown consistently in recent years, he said. 

"By showcasing how things work out badly in the United States, a sense of patriotism can be created: 'We are doing a better job,' and thereby generate support for the government and non-democratic style of selecting leaders, by saying, 'With democracy, you get people like Trump, you don't want that,'" Boukes told VICE News. 

Aside from the criticism of candidates and the process, Chinese-language state media has also highlighted the more chaotic aspects of the polls and speculated on looming violence. The more radical outlets hinted that a civil war may be in the cards, with one article from ifeng, a major partially state-owned broadcaster run by a former journalist for the CCP, stating that "America is bracing for civil war." QQ News reported that civil war is looming, in a story that read: "There was a gunshot in the United States! Americans fill their mind with imagination: Is this the beginning of a civil war?" 

"Americans worry that the results of this election may throw the country into chaos," reads another article on CCTV's website. "Americans are starting to panic-buy toilet rolls, food, and even guns. Some Americans even plan to move to rural areas or hide in bunkers." The article's headline reads: "This may be the election that breaks the United States, reports American media," referencing the Atlantic's November front page

Several articles on CCTV have emphasized this trend that Americans are stocking up on weapons. One article was even angled entirely on the premise that "Americans are scrambling to buy guns as election day approaches." Global Times likewise reported that guns and arms sales set a record in October in the lead-up to the election, rising by 60 percent. 

A news clip by Global Times claimed in a headline that riots were inevitable. "The military is on stand-by, and some cities even banned people from going out at night," the article reads.

"Some said people 'geared up' with guns in army outfits at polling stations to 'protect' voters. The US National guard is ready to assist the police if the situation is out of hand, curfews are in place in voting cities, and gun stores are seeing a surge in businesses. A shopkeeper said that two years worth of stock has been cleared out in the last five months," the clip states. 

Boukes said that other motives for covering the election in this way may include a goal to divert the attention of the Chinese people away from domestic issues by creating the illusion that things are much worse elsewhere. The coverage could also be the result of a grudge held by the CCP, he said. 

"It might be a response to how the American government, and perhaps also the media, have overly, critically covered the Chinese efforts to combat the COVID-19 response, thereby being some kind of reprisal action."   

While Chinese-language media has been focused on the negative aspects of the polls, English-language coverage from Chinese state media, in contrast, was rather lacking.

The People's Daily, considered the mouthpiece of China's central government, did not have a single story about the election, neither on election day or the day before. 

"In essence, there has been surprisingly little focus in Chinese state media on the U.S. election overall," said Vanessa Molter, who co-authored the paper Telling China's Story: The Chinese Communist Party's Campaign to Shape Global Narratives as a former research assistant at the Stanford Internet Observatory. She's now the Project Lead for the Election Integrity Partnership at Graphika.

"In the relatively few instances that Chinese state media did cover the U.S. election, most of this coverage is fact-oriented, for example describing which states are swing states and why this matters, or factual coverage of the presidential debates. In contrast, a lot more focus has been on the situation in the United States in general, especially the rising number of COVID cases," she told VICE News. 

She agreed that coverage of the candidates' policies had been limited, with some mentioning that neither candidate's policies were favorable to China, but did not find that chaos had taken center stage. 

"There is coverage of, for example, New York storefronts being boarded up in the lead-up to election day, but this coverage is relatively neutral and the issue has been covered in the U.S. media broadly. Overall, I see a neutral framing [for the international audience], with an occasional portrayal of the election as infighting in an inefficient system."

As of publication time, Biden leads with 248 electoral votes to Trump's 214, according to the Associated Press. 270 electoral votes are needed to win the election.