- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
This is a guest post from Liz Carter, a senior contributor to FP‘s Tea Leaf Nation.
As the U.S. federal government hurtles into shutdown mode, many in the United States have responded with anger or shame; here at FP, for instance, Gordon Adams compares the congressional bickering that gave rise to the shutdown to Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.
Americans would be forgiven for assuming that observers in China, whose government is not averse to showcasing U.S. government failures to burnish the ruling Communist Party’s image, are watching all this and indulging in schadenfreude. Instead, both China’s state-run and private-but-state-supervised mainstream media outlets have thus far reacted with restraint. Meanwhile, users of the country’s bustling, often candid, often profane social web have found a silver lining in the political paralysis that would surprise many Americans.
Mainstream coverage of the shutdown has been widespread, but its tone has been explanatory, not celebratory. State-run China Central Television covered the developments in a several-minute-long segment entitled, "Republicans’ and Democrats’ Contest Without Result: U.S. Federal Government Non-essential Departments Forced to Close." Sina, one of China’s major news portals, prepared a dedicated page covering the shutdown (see above), complete with infographics and listicles explaining its causes and consequences. The page’s most febrile headline accompanied a relatively workmanlike article: "Exclusive Analysis: Two-party Government Stalemate Holds America Hostage." Even an article on the reliably pro-Party Global Times posited that while failure to resolve the standoff before Oct. 15 could have negative consequences for global financial markets, the possibility that this would happen was less than 10 percent.
In Chinese social media, meanwhile, the government shutdown became an opportunity to criticize the Chinese government. Chatter ran deep: the Chinese equivalent of "#USGovernmentShutdown" rose to the second-most discussed topic on all of Sina Weibo, a popular social media platform, as of this writing. Weibo users have commented on the topic more than 135,000 times.
Perhaps predictably, some web users cracked jokes about how trash would pile up in Washington, D.C. and public bathroom closures would present problems for citizens with indigestion. But many took the opportunity to discuss how the U.S. government shutdown reflected on China itself.
Some veiled their critiques. Xu Jilin, a professor of history at East China Normal University in Shanghai, wrote, "The government has shut down, but the country is not in disorder — now that’s what you call a good country where people can live without worry."
The gridlock itself, decried by most commentators in the U.S., struck many Chinese as a sign of lawfulness. As one user remarked, "A government that can shut down, no matter how big the impact on everyone’s lives, is a good thing. It shows that power can be checked, and the government can’t spend money however it wants."
Most users, while critical of the U.S. tendency to borrow from China, did not see the shutdown as a sign that democracy was inherently flawed. One user, @HeYanbin, described the issue as one of tradeoffs:
It is clear that there is an economic cost for the fairness and equality of a rule-of-law system and constitutionalism. Only then is it a true democracy; the shutdown is just the result of a two-party standoff. Only in this kind of society do you have rule and order, not tyranny. China isn’t like that. The government runs extremely smoothly — no need at all to worry that it might shut down. In this regard, I envy the U.S.
Others took more direct aim at their own government. As one user noted, "Comrades, no need to worry that the same thing will happen in our country! In any event, delegates in our National People’s Congress [China’s rubber-stamp legislature] cannot cast dissenting votes, haha." Another wrote, "I wish China’s government would shut down and let corrupt officials have a taste of it."
The growing connections between China and the United States mean that no issue is strictly domestic for either country. Many Weibo users speculated about the effects the U.S. government shutdown would have on them personally. Some wondered whether Washington’s museum and zoo closures would affect Chinese traveling to the United States during China’s National Day holiday (Oct. 1 marks the anniversary — this year, the 64th — of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and is one of the most popular times for Chinese to travel abroad). Others questioned how the shutdown would affect their visa applications, or the value of the U.S. dollar. On Netease, a popular news site with active comment forums, the top comment related to the shutdown put it in perspective: "No one is laughing at the United States; they just find it very interesting." That’s not precisely true, but Americans may be heartened to know that it’s close enough.