Why China Isn’t Congratulating Biden

A dive into Chinese-language media offers some clues.

A waitress wears a protective mask as she watches a speech by U.S. President Donald Trump on a television during an election-watching event at a bar in Beijing on Nov. 4.
A waitress wears a protective mask as she watches a speech by U.S. President Donald Trump on a television during an election-watching event at a bar in Beijing on Nov. 4. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Custom has it that as soon as an election result becomes clear, other heads of state send warm wishes to the newly elected leader. Four days after the U.S. television networks called the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the governments of Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have sent congratulations to President-elect Joe Biden. So have Australia, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea in the Pacific. In the Middle East and South Asia, even countries that U.S. President Donald Trump courted during his presidency, such as India, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, are calling Biden the president-elect. But China has not yet acknowledged Biden’s victory.

Most Chinese-language media reports are treating Biden’s victory as a foregone conclusion. But they are also disturbed by Trump’s refusal to concede and see a real risk that he could try to retaliate against China before leaving office. Beijing seems to have determined that the safest approach is to wait Trump out, preparing for a Biden presidency while humoring Trump’s claims that the election result is still undetermined.

China’s initial reaction to an apparent Biden win was that there was nothing left to fear from Trump. On Saturday, around the time the U.S. networks first called the result, Trump tweeted, “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!” The People’s Daily, the most prominent mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, retweeted him with an uncharacteristically snide “HaHa” and a “rolling on the floor laughing” emoji.

According to the Internet Archive’s cache, the People’s Daily’s jab at Trump stayed up on Twitter for over nine hours. It garnered over 30,000 likes and 10,000 retweets. But then, sometime on Sunday, the People’s Daily took the tweet down.

By Monday morning, the Chinese government had settled on a new, far more cautious line. At his daily media briefing, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said: “We understand that the U.S. presidential election result will be determined following U.S. law and procedures.” Hu Xijin, editor of the state-owned nationalist tabloid Global Timestweeted that “China hasn’t congratulated Biden on his victory … because China needs to keep larger distance from the U.S. presidential election to avoid getting entangled in its controversy.”

Hu’s analysis was probably wise. Hours later, Trump tweeted that he had “terminated” Mark Esper, his acting secretary of defense. The Chinese government did not comment on the news, but the Chinese financial press treated the story as very concerning indeed. One Chinese headline read: “Trump’s firing of Defense Secretary Esper makes the Pentagon uneasy.” The announcement “caused unease among [U.S.] allies and the Pentagon,” it read, and “injected uncertainty into the presidential transition period.”

Citing a New York Times report, the Chinese news agency Sohu noted that Esper’s dismissal could suggest that Trump plans to “launch actions” against Iran or other foreign adversaries in his “last few days of his term.” These actions could be “public or covert,” it warned. China’s apparent alarm had ramped up by Tuesday morning, when Caixin, the leading private financial media group in China, criticized Trump for injecting “chaos and uncertainty into the presidential transition” by firing Esper. It is unclear what form China thinks Trump’s potential retribution would take, whether a cyberattack, new trade measures, or provocative military exchanges with Taiwan. But the risk seems sufficiently material that the highest levels of the Chinese state and Communist Party are paying close attention.

Hesitant as they may be to congratulate Biden, Chinese reports do not suggest any real possibility that Trump could remain president after Jan. 20. Caixin is calling Biden the president-elect. Northeast Securities, a Chinese financial firm, wrote that “the U.S. general election mail-in votes are still in statistical processing, but a Biden victory is a high probability event.” They have paid hardly any attention to the details of Trump’s legal challenges of mail-in ballots or demands for recounts in swing states. The Global Times even reported on Tuesday morning that Trump has been talking about running again in 2024. “If the news is true,” the news analysis continued, “it means that although Trump has vowed to ‘fight to the end in court,’ he has understood the reality that he lost in this election.”

China has no illusions that a Biden presidency will reverse the Trump administration’s hard line. “The results of the U.S. election will not change the pattern of long-term conflict between China and the United States,” one report read. Every indication is that China wants to compete and win in this “long-term conflict.” For now, however, Beijing is clearly nervous about Trump’s final months in power. As long as Trump continues to contest the election result, Biden should not expect a congratulatory call from President Xi Jinping.

Eyck Freymann is the author of One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World (Harvard University Press 2020) and director of Indo-Pacific at Greenmantle, a macroeconomic advisory firm.

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