China plays it straight on US election but keeps an eye out for mayhem

In the dramatic run-up to Tuesday’s US presidential election, Chinese coverage and commentary in state and social media has been relatively restrained.

But that could change if disorder and a disputed election result offer up an easy propaganda victory for China, which has been crowing about the advantages of its political system in light of the successful containment of the Covid-19 pandemic within its borders.

Over the weekend China’s tightly controlled state-media outlets began to pick up on US reports about both surging gun sales and business owners boarding up their shops in anticipation of election-related unrest.

That contrasted with earlier coverage that was dominated by low-key and factual accounts — typically produced by the official Xinhua news agency’s US bureau — even for sensational developments such as Donald Trump’s Covid-19 infection last month.

Analysts and Chinese media professionals said Beijing’s cautious handling of American election coverage reflected the Communist party’s appreciation of just how sensitive an issue China was in the US — as well as its determination not to pour any more oil on the fire.

“China has a huge amount at stake but they’re playing it pretty straight,” said Doug Young, an expert on Chinese state media and author of The Party Line, a book on how the CCP controls public opinion.

“If there’s the slightest hint that China is favouring one candidate, the other candidate will jump all over it. It’s a no-win situation for the Chinese.”

Chinese journalists who had hoped to do more reporting on the election confirmed that they have been told to stand down — for now.

“There is no question that the outcome of the US presidential election will have a huge impact on China,” a producer at a large provincial broadcaster told the Financial Times.

“But my supervisor has turned down my request to work on an election series. It is difficult to take sides and we were told to wait for the final outcome before doing a story.”

The producer added that such top-level caution would quickly fade if the presidential election gave way to chaotic scenes across the US. “My friends at other TV networks will air stories that focus on social chaos no matter who wins the election.” the producer said. “That’s the best we can do.”

Social media interest in the US election has also been relatively muted — something that could reflect the influence of official media. “Usually the talk on social media is in response to [state media] news and there haven’t been that many news articles on the election,” says Mr Young.

According to Sina, which runs China’s censored Twitter equivalent, over the past week there has been more online interest in a cold front in northern China than in US politics. Last week’s scripted annual gathering of the party’s central committee was also rated as a hotter topic than the US election.

Election commentaries in the party’s biggest media outlets — Xinhua, the People’s Daily newspaper and China Central Television — have focused on negative aspects of US democracy, such as the nexus between money and politics. “The votes go where the money goes,” Xinhua said last week. 

But there is also a risk for Beijing in being too critical ahead of Tuesday’s election, especially if a convincing victory for Mr Biden is followed by the usual peaceful transfer of power in Washington.

As Bill Bishop, editor of the influential Sinocism China newsletter, said in a tweet last month, “China has had bad leaders too [but I] don’t remember any of them getting voted out”.

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu and Emma Zhou

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