China Media Told to Stay Low-Key on U.S. Election

Papers don’t want to give the impression Beijing is taking a side.

By , an author, reporter, and translator.
A newsstand in Beijing on Aug. 19.
A newsstand in Beijing on Aug. 19.
A newsstand in Beijing on Aug. 19. Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

The big news in Chinese media isn’t the U.S. election—it’s the delayed listing of the massive Ant Group, the financial giant owned by the billionaire Jack Ma, on the Chinese stock market. Without that, the election would probably be making headlines—but would still be getting considerably less coverage than in previous years, thanks to the sharply escalating tensions between the United States and China.

Politically sensitive topics—especially around foreign relationships—tend to produce limited and nervous coverage in China. That’s backed up by my conversations with reporters in Chinese state media. A reporter from one state-linked outfit told me that months ago they were told to be very careful about covering this election and to ensure the coverage was “calm,” “neutral,” and “appropriate.” They were advised to not publish an excessive number of articles on this matter and to avoid live election results that might draw a lot of public attention—and most importantly, to be very cautious about their wording so that their stance wasn’t read as that of the Chinese government.

“My pitch on battleground states was rejected by the chief editor, since if we imply that a particular candidate might win the swing states, readers might interpret it as China supporting them, and even worse, readers might interpret it as China trying to interfere with the election,” the reporter said.

The big news in Chinese media isn’t the U.S. election—it’s the delayed listing of the massive Ant Group, the financial giant owned by the billionaire Jack Ma, on the Chinese stock market. Without that, the election would probably be making headlines—but would still be getting considerably less coverage than in previous years, thanks to the sharply escalating tensions between the United States and China.

Politically sensitive topics—especially around foreign relationships—tend to produce limited and nervous coverage in China. That’s backed up by my conversations with reporters in Chinese state media. A reporter from one state-linked outfit told me that months ago they were told to be very careful about covering this election and to ensure the coverage was “calm,” “neutral,” and “appropriate.” They were advised to not publish an excessive number of articles on this matter and to avoid live election results that might draw a lot of public attention—and most importantly, to be very cautious about their wording so that their stance wasn’t read as that of the Chinese government.

“My pitch on battleground states was rejected by the chief editor, since if we imply that a particular candidate might win the swing states, readers might interpret it as China supporting them, and even worse, readers might interpret it as China trying to interfere with the election,” the reporter said.

She said it was frustrating to report on the election with so many restraints. Weibo, China’s Twitter-alike service, is being monitored closely as well; when she posted about Donald Trump being likely to win Florida on her personal Weibo, the message was deleted immediately.

Another reporter, from ThePaper.cn, noted that they had received similar guidelines in reporting the election: “Stay low-key” and be careful when reporting “democracy-related issues.”

Chinese social media has been less restrained—and less accurate. On the morning of Nov. 3, a few bloggers posted a fake election result showing Trump winning almost 400 electoral college votes. Some bloggers mistakenly believed “electoral colleges” were colleges that inform people about election-related knowledge. Many WeChat articles echoed right-wing extremists and tried to scare Chinese Americans away from voting for Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Given the confusion and lack of coverage, comic memes have been all many people have seen about the results. That has added to the feeling that the whole event isn’t that important—only a reality TV show.

Tracy Wen Liu is an investigative reporter, author, and translator who focuses on the U.S.-China relationship.

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