China and the World

Losing the debate

Chinese media sees Trump-Biden brawl as sign of America’s decline


Got scathing reviews in China too

Until the 1990s observers from the West often mocked China’s so-called ‘old man politics’. That was when the so-called “Eight Immortals” – eight Communist Revolutionaries who took part in the Long March and helped found the People’s Republic – were still influencing Beijing’s decisionmaking.

However, when the Chinese watched how Donald Trump and Joe Biden faced off in their first presidential debate on Wednesday, local social media exploded with memes – this time poking fun at the American political system.

An image grabbed from the American cartoon show The Simpsons soon circulated showing the fictional newspaper headline “Old Man Yells at Old Man”. As one netizen asked on WeChat: “Two 70-something old men taking on each other. Are they really the best that American politics can come up with?”

The more patriotic elements of the Chinese press were quick to comment too.“The two political leaders of the US obviously did not show an exemplary role to American people on how to engage in debates. Such chaos at the top of US politics reflects division, the anxiety of US society and the accelerating loss of the advantages of the US political system,” Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, wrote on his Twitter account.

Hu’s Global Times has been taking swipes at the American political system for some time, particularly as Sino-US relations have soured. The ongoing US presidential election has offered plenty of opportunity for the nationalistic newspaper to champion what it deems to be the Chinese system’s superiority.

“This debate was like the country: everybody’s talking. Nobody’s listening. Nothing is learned. It’s a mess. This is what most Americans feel after watching the first presidential debate,” an op-ed in the same newspaper suggested.

The China Daily noted the ugly tone of the encounter: “The debate seemed to reveal a genuine dislike between the two men, with no pretence of decorum.”

The People’s Daily took a more restrained approach, though the state mouthpiece did object to the way China was referred to by the candidates in the debate. Zhong Sheng, a pen name often used by the Party-run newspaper to express its views on foreign policy, warned: “The general election of the US is its internal affair. China has neither interfered in it nor has interest in it.”

Gu Su, a political scientist at Nanjing University, told the South China Morning Post: “Overall, it was messy and one of the worst presidential debates in many years. There’s no winner in this debate, as it failed to live up to the expectations of the people around the world with respect to the US as one of the most developed democracies.”

The website of Atlanta-based CNN’s ran its own article after the event, which it headlined: “In Trump-Biden debate chaos, China and other opponents of democracy are the big winners”. Its author James Griffiths wrote: “For decades, Beijing has criticised US-style democracy, holding up (very real) flaws in the American system as vindication for Chinese authoritarianism… On Tuesday, Trump helped to bolster that view, and in turn, further erode global confidence in US-style democracy.”

Huang Jing, a US specialist at the Beijing Language and Culture University’s Institute of International and Regional Studies concurred with this view but in a more qualified fashion.“It is a failure on the US’ part. Therefore it is a win for major US opponents, such as China and Russia,” he told the SCMP. “But on the other hand, it also demonstrated the inclusiveness of the US systems.” It should be pointed out too that only those Chinese with a VPN were able to watch the US debate – doing so online – given that local TV networks couldn’t broadcast it.

Meanwhile Chinese political analysts have warned that China hawks in Washington are likely to remain in the ascendant, regardless of whether Trump or Biden wins the election.

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