China’s Media Mentions of the 2020 Candidates

China’s Media Mentions of the 2020 Candidates

March 30, 2020

Post by Rachel Chernaskey and Clint Watts

“They do not want me, or us, to win because I am the first president to ever challenge China on trade.” President Trump put forth this allegation at the United Nations on September 26, 2018, suggesting China was interfering in the 2018 U.S. midterm election. This allegation set forth months of debate regarding Chinese influence in not only the 2018 midterm U.S. elections, but the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Thus, when we started the Foreign Influence Election 2020 (FIE 2020) project last summer, we extended our analysis beyond Russia and Iran to include China. This post offers our first assessment of China’s overt news outlet, the Global Times, and their coverage of the candidates heading into this November’s U.S. presidential election.

There are clear differences between Chinese state media and Russian or Iranian outlets. The Global Times, while often pushing explicitly anti-Western, anti-U.S. sentiments, is far more concerned with foreign policy and economic issues than with the day-to-day details of the 2020 presidential race. The Global Times appears to be less critical or favorable of specific presidential candidates, but rather critical of the U.S. political system as a whole. The Global Times also sources content from other media outlets—including Western ones like Reuters and France’s Agence France-Presse—far more regularly than Iranian or Russian state media and, given that, its production capacity appears to be the smallest of the outlets FIE 2020 examines with the most limited reach. 

China’s discussion of 2020 candidates

To understand where, why, how and for whom China might interfere in the 2020 election, FPRI’s Foreign Influence Election (FIE 2020) Project has examined the following question: 

What does the Chinese state media say about the presidential candidates?”

FIE 2020’s research team analyzed 1,196 articles published on the Global Times from January 1, 2019 to March 23, 2020. Those articles included 1,406 mentions of current and former 2020 presidential candidates. 

Overwhelmingly, mentions in articles referenced President Trump. With 1,048 mentions, the Global Times discusses President Trump ten times more than any other  candidate. As the Global Times covers broader issues than other foreign state media outlets, Trump is mentioned more often as head of state, rather than as a 2020 candidate. Global Times coverage is decidedly more focused on issues of trade, foriegn policy and technology battles regarding Chinese companies (i.e. Huawei). The U.S. presidential election of 2020 coverage is small and represents only a fraction of Global Times content—quite different from what we’ve observed reading Russia’s RT and Sputnik News.

President Trump’s mentions were far more negative than positive: Just 7% of his mentions were favorable; 41% were unfavorable. Negative mentions of Trump surfaced mainly in the context of: 

  • Trump’s response and handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, both domestically and abroad
    • Chinese state media was particularly critical of Trump after he began referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” Allegations of racism and weaponization of the virus for political leverage by the Trump administration were frequent points of discussion in stories.
  • The trade war between the U.S. and China
    • Subsequently, the trade negotiations and “Phase One” deal between China and the U.S. also garnered extensive coverage
  • Trump’s criticisms and stonewalling of Chinese telecom giant Huawei
  • The impeachment proceedings 
    • Chinese state media also often highlights U.S. political infighting, painting the U.S. political system as chaotic and ineffective
  • Foreign policy issues, particularly those in China’s backyard, such as U.S.-North Korea negotiations and relations

Former Vice President Joe Biden received the second-most mentions (71) in the Global Times. The former Vice President, Senator Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren all received few mentions since 2019 and have roughly the same distribution of positive to negative coverage (see Figure 13). Mentions of the other Democratic candidates almost exclusively surfaced in the context of the 2020 election: campaign announcements, policy proposals, primaries and the like, but little preference was shown. 

Other themes and narratives prevalent in Chinese state media

China’s Global Times doesn’t care that much about election 2020, but frequently discusses a number of other themes critical of America. These themes and narratives generally include:

Lastly, the COVID-19 pandemic presented a significant opportunity for China to advance its goals abroad through disinformation. As outlined in FIE’s previous post on Chinese COVID-19 coverage, China first pushed hard anti-U.S., pro-China sentiments, painting China as the decisive global leader on COVID-19 response and aid. However, since March 12, Chinese state media has pushed its own conspiracy theories, suggesting COVID-19 originated in the U.S. As Russian amplification of this Chinese messaging has been previously reported, Iran and Russia have noticeably amplified Chinese narratives amid the COVID-19 outbreak.