‘Is This a Debate or Quarrel?’: Chinese Netizens on US Presidential Debate

The first Trump-Biden clash stunned viewers just starting their day on the other side of the world.
September 30, 2020, 9:25am
China, Trump, Biden
Women gather at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP

As millions of Americans went to bed having watched one of the most chaotic and inflammatory U.S. presidential debates in history, those who caught the jaw-dropping showdown as they started their day in Asia reacted with shock, amusement and no small amount of pity.

“Is this a debate or a quarrel? I feel sorry for America,” commented one Chinese blogger who shared a video of the first one-on-one between US President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden on the state-censored Sina Weibo social media website.

Another weighed in on a popular thread, saying: “That was the worst presidential debate in my life - and that’s saying a lot coming from someone in Beijing.”

US-China relations are at new lows as diplomats and leaders regularly trade barbs over consulate closures, the pandemic, trade disputes and human rights issues.

But the cringe-inducing debate, where Trump uttered numerous falsehoods and regularly talked over Biden, who in turn told him to “shut up man” and “keep yappin”, made waves for the sheer spectacle of watching two men in their 70s go back and forth as moderator Chris Wallace vainly tried to intervene.

“Two old men arguing, with a third trying to mediate - each trying to outdo and outtalk one another,” one Weibo user said. Another called the 90-minute debate “stand-up comedy.”

Veteran Chinese journalist and political blogger Jing Zhao, also known by his pen name Michael Anti, captured the mood in one tweet.

“How does one simultaneously [translate] and interpret the events of tonight’s debate?”

This headache was also shared by many in other countries listening in, like Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

“Is Chen Guangcheng also in the studio,” others asked, referring to the exiled Chinese civil rights activist who recently made a surprising, high-profile endorsement of Trump.

The second of three debates ahead of the Nov. 4 election is set for next week.

While the topic of US-China relations was not directly addressed on Tuesday night, the country was mentioned at several points and proved to be a hot topic on the Chinese internet, with various search terms skyrocketing to the top of trending charts on various portals and websites.

Watchers took issue with the president using “anti-Asian racist terms” in calling COVID-19 the “Chinese plague”. One satirical Twitter account cheekily observed that Chinese President Xi Jinping was the real winner of the debate.

The debate was watched closely because anything and everything the U.S. does provokes keen interest in China, noted Stanley Rosen, a political science and international relations professor at the University of Southern California.

“Trump and the people in his administration, like secretary of state Mike Pompeo, take a hardline approach when it comes to China so the Communist Party government couldn't have asked for a better debate to make the American system of elections look deeply flawed,” Rosen told VICE News.

State media outlets in China also jumped at the discourse and reacted to the debate, calling it a reflection of a sharply divided U.S. society.

“In terms of the debate itself, it’s being very played up in Chinese state media as a confirmation of everything that's wrong with the U.S. - the shouting matches, exaggerated claims and the lack of seriousness in American electoral democracy and politics more generally all feeds into the Chinese narrative,” Rosen added.