As the United States tallied votes in a presidential election that appears headed for a court battle and fractious final phase, Chinese commentators and state mouthpieces this week lined up to portray the cross-Pacific superpower — viewed with awe and envy by generations of Chinese — as a politically crumbling edifice in 2020.
The Chinese criticisms, while pointed, mirrored broad concerns among both U.S. allies and rivals as the United States wrestled with unfounded allegations of electoral fraud from President Trump on Wednesday, an emerging legal showdown and the prospect of internal divisions that could endure well beyond Inauguration Day. Sizing up the situation, newspapers in South Korea and Japan this week questioned the “intrinsic value of democracy” while Britain’s former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt warned about a potential “catastrophe for the worldwide reputation of democracy.”
But in China, state media and the commentariat followed the unprecedented scenes from the United States not with anxiety but schadenfreude. The country had been locked in an increasingly ideological confrontation with the Trump administration and has doubled down in recent years on promoting the legitimacy of Communist Party rule to its citizens.
In a piece in Xinhua’s China Comment magazine, Wang Pengquan, a state socialism researcher, chastised his compatriots for reflexively “kowtowing” to U.S. superiority and urged them to build a “modern socialist country.”
“America-worshippers exaggerate its political system’s ability to self-correct and tout its so-called freedom,” Wang wrote. “Facts speak louder than words. The vast majority of Chinese can see through the reality of U.S. political division, economic stagnation and social turmoil.”
No matter the outcome of the election, there is little hope for the United States to regain the global leadership it inherited at the end of World War II, wrote Xinhua editor Wang Jinwei in another piece as he described a country racked by racial tensions, economic inequality and unchecked coronavirus cases.
Criticisms of liberal democracy, to be sure, are nothing new from Beijing, where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) holds power with an iron grip. China has rapped neighboring Taiwan and South Korea, for instance, when brawls have broken out in their parliaments. When the presidential election in 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore descended into controversy before being settled by the Supreme Court, state media noted mildly that the U.S. electoral system “is in fact not perfect.”
The tone was harsher this time.
“Democracy has not made America great again, nor has it saved Americans from the pandemic,” said Wang Wen, an executive dean at Renmin University in Beijing who wrote an essay earlier this year titled “the End of the American Century.”
“This is no longer the United States we knew in the past,” Wang told The Washington Post.
Freedom House, a nongovernmental, nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., released a report this year that included the United States among countries where democratic institutions have weakened.
But Sarah Cook, a China researcher at Freedom House, said the Chinese criticisms of democracies were “ironic” and a “typical part of the playbook” from its state media. Cartoons and memes mocking Trump and U.S. politicians have been widespread in China, but “any user posting anything even remotely irreverent of Xi Jinping faces severe punishment, including possible imprisonment,” she said, referring to the Chinese president.
“Those kinds of actions speak louder than words in terms of the deep level of insecurity behind the CCP and state media’s boasting of their own system.”
As vote totals climbed, many independent outlets on Chinese social media, which represent the most popular way for many Chinese to consume news, scrambled to provide readers detailed explanations on matters such as the U.S. electoral college, why absentee ballots could dramatically shift vote totals after polls closed, and the implications of Trump declaring an early victory.
Government censors, for the most part, stayed at arm’s length from discussions about U.S. politics as the topic racked up nearly 7 billion views on Weibo.
In Hong Kong, where Beijing has accused Washington of political interference, the Communist Party-controlled Ta Kung Pao newspaper seized on the election turmoil as an example of Washington’s “double standards.”
The U.S. government sided last year with Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters who demanded the right to choose the city’s leader rather than selecting from candidates prescreened by Beijing. Yet the U.S. president is also not selected simply by popular vote, the newspaper argued, while pointing out that the U.S. election could be mired in a legal challenge and that the White House is barricaded behind steel bars.
“What is infuriating is that Americans themselves reject so-called true universal suffrage but ask Hong Kong to promote it,” Ta Kung Pao opined. “The U.S. election is not a model of democracy, but an ugly demonstration of democracy. It’s a worldwide laughingstock.”
When the U.S. Embassy in Beijing also sought to explain the electoral college on Weibo as part of the State Department’s public diplomacy, it was also greeted with skepticism.
One Chinese user derided the state of democracy in the United States as “slipping to the level of Belarus or Venezuela.”
Another joked that America is so divided it should adopt China’s “one country, two systems” framework for governing Hong Kong: “You can have two governments and two presidents!”