Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts China’s Narratives about U.S. Election Integrity in 2020
China’s Narratives about U.S. Election Integrity in 2020

China’s Narratives about U.S. Election Integrity in 2020

July 3, 2020

Post by Rachel Chernaskey

China’s state-sponsored media outlet the Global Times publishes fairly limited coverage on U.S. election integrity regarding the 2020 presidential election. Unlike state-run media outlets from Russia and Iran, the Global Times does not promote theories alleging the Democratic establishment has been undermining Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign and rigging the election. Rather, China seeks to undermine U.S. election integrity by republishing content from other news sources that highlights flaws within the American electoral system and publishing original content that undermines the system of democracy as a whole. Much of the Global Times’s original content on the topic surrounds the narrative that America is not a true democracy and is inferior to China’s meritocracy. 

With regard to the U.S. 2020 election, China appears to have little interest in supporting one candidate over another as Russia and Iran might in state-sponsored content. This likely has to do with China’s general disdain for American politics across the board and broader U.S.-China tensions. Articles like “US election sees China bashing by both parties,” in which Shen Yi, director at the Research Center for Cyberspace Governance of Fudan University, accuses all U.S. candidates of “[posturing] to a more anti-China stance to pin a victory,” make this clear.

The Global Times does not produce much original content about U.S. election integrity, frequently opting to republish pieces by other news outlets instead to include many Western outlets. Some of these articles highlight factually accurate shortcomings of the American electoral system. “Digital threats multiply ahead of 2020 US elections,” originally published by Agence France-Presse, underlines ways in which foreign interference aimed at voter suppression is “a technique likely to rise in 2020,” and how voting machines could be vulnerable to being hacked by adversaries. Other republished stories, however, rely on more dubious sources and less well-backed claims. “The Hidden Flaws of Voting by Mail: Why the GOP is Suing California Gavin Newsom” was originally written by Russia’s Sputnik News and claims that “inactive voters are still eligible and according to Newsom’s order would be mailed a ballot… that could result in thousands of ballots going to addresses that are incorrect or no longer valid. Many such ballots would likely be sent back as undeliverable, but it’s very possible many would not.” 

Although the Global Times has recently criticized President Trump’s response to protests in the U.S. in the context of the 2020 election, original content surrounding U.S. electoral integrity typically does not make pointed claims but rather is often used as an attempt to highlight China’s superiority. In an article titled “Transparency defines China’s election system,” allegations that the U.S. suppresses its voters “through difficult voter registration requirements” are highlighted. Notably, the author claims he has “not heard of voter suppression in China.” An article titled “What is an alternative for a dying US democracy?” writes that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had “used the Republican Party’s manipulation of the Wisconsin primary as an example to show that one of the two parties had implemented autocratic principles,” harkening to it as signs of the collapse of democracy in the U.S. The piece ends with the suggestion that “China, on the other end of the political continuum, could be a good example of mixing socialism with the market economy for the U.S. to learn.” In these articles, America’s failures are constantly exploited to highlight China’s success.

Social Media Reach

When it comes to social media reach, the Global Times’s content sees far less engagement than that of Russian or Iranian outlets. Out of the Global Times articles analyzed for their explicit mentions of election integrity in 2020, “What is an alternative for a dying US democracy?” received the most public Facebook interactions (measured in shares, comments and reactions) as of June 17, with 16 shares, 7 comments and 20 reactions on Facebook. On Twitter, the Global Times’s tweet featuring the article received 56 comments, 35 shares, and 38 likes, and the article was tweeted 11 more times on Twitter (though some users reposting the article did so to criticize it). Though the article kept with China’s anti-U.S., anti-democracy sentiment, it did not see widespread public engagement online. The rest of the Global Times articles analyzed received fewer than 10 engagements on all platforms. 

It is not unexpected that the Global Times receives fewer engagements on social media than other outlets. Though Chinese state-sponsored media has significant social media following on American platforms, its content is less targeted and engagement is typically low among American audiences. Rather than focusing on the U.S.’s internal politics, Chinese state media highlights the country’s relationship with China. Though Global Times does dedicate a significant amount of resources into pushing narratives regarding COVID-19 and the U.S.-China trade war, it does not concern itself much with attempts to manipulate the voting decisions of groups within the U.S. populace. Articles surrounding the failures of American democracy tend to focus more on asserting China’s superiority over America, furthering China’s goal of maligning the U.S. globally.