United States President-elect Joe Biden has acquired a growing cult following among numerous Chinese intellectuals and ordinary netizens who find his “from average Joe to president” life story intriguing and inspiring.
There has been a steady diet of posts and biopic-like clips about Biden on WeChat, Weibo and other Chinese social media platforms, since the Democratic veteran emerged from the US presidential sweepstakes, which was closely watched by many Chinese.
Almost overnight, Biden’s image was splashed across the front pages of Chinese papers and magazines, with state media outlets in their longer inside reads playing up the hopes of a conciliatory reset of ties ending the four turbulent years under outgoing President Donald Trump.
“A safe pair of hands to salvage and lift the world’s most important bilateral ties,” read one report dispatched by Xinhua’s Washington Bureau on November 5, after it became clear that the Democratic ticket of Biden and Kamala Harris amassed the most votes ever cast for candidates in any US presidential race.
The optimism became even more palpable after Beijing toned down its rhetoric against Washington, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s overtures about managing disputes for a new era of relations.
Biden-loving media coverage continued until this week, when state broadcaster China Central Television ran a program calling out the “American fans” in China who it said were brainwashed by the “insidious infiltration of US soft-sell and propaganda.”
On Wednesday and Thursday, CCTV warned in a program aired nationwide during evening prime time, of the “resurgence” by a string of pro-US opinion leaders and bloggers in the country, who were intent on setting the news agenda with their “fawning comments” about Biden and, more broadly, the American democracy and political paradigms.
CCTV said media regulators and the masses must stay vigilant and not be swayed or misled by the agitprop.
A commentary that appeared on CCTV’s website noted that Trump’s antics and “crackpot policies and sanctions” against China had long “united patriotic Chinese” but now, with Biden’s win, some opinion leaders on Weibo and WeChat saw an opportunity to renew their campaign to purvey the virtues of American democracy.
“With some nice yarns about certain US politicians, [these Chinese bloggers and opinion leaders] weave a positive and deceptive narrative about a country that has avowedly made China its archival…
“They hail the ‘inspiring’ stories of some politicians – with posts doing their rounds on social media – and then seek to shift the focus to the ‘open and fair’ American election and political systems to discredit China’s systems,” the commentary said.
CCTV suggested that posts and content that put a positive spin on the US could be part of a well-coordinated effort to portray certain politicians as inspiring role models, who rose through the ranks in an open and fair society of the US. The broadcaster warned that they could be part of Washington’s bigger scheme to recruit netizens to indoctrinate the Chinese people.
Still, topics about Biden’s age, life tragedies and political career records – losing his first wife in a car accident, representing Delaware in the Senate for 36 years, four visits to China, three presidential bids, winning at the age of 78 – are still buzzing on social platforms. It remains to be seen if these posts will eventually be pulled following CCTV’s rebukes.
An associate professor of media at Tsinghua University told Asia Times that Beijing could have realized that Biden’s win may be seen as a “call to arms” for China’s small but influential “pro-US sects” whose members are mostly intellectuals and media professionals. He said their revived support of Biden and the US in the public discourse could be interpreted by Beijing as evidence of Biden’s sway over China’s elite.
“The consensus is that Biden and his upcoming administration would continue to heap pressure on China on multiple fronts and he will also unite allies to close ranks against China, so naturally, it is galling to Beijing to see the resurgence of pro-US sentiments at home,” said the scholar who refused to be named.
“Of course, state media’s extensive coverage of Biden in November also played a part as they could have carried their coverage a bit too far, but newspapers and TV channels may have been told by the party’s propaganda department to reduce the airtime of Biden,” he said.
Wang Yigui, a professor of international relations at the China Renmin University in Beijing, also told Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao that Biden’s win could restore the faith of some Chinese as they thought the US could mount a formidable comeback to lead the world again.
“The war to defend the Communist Party’s ideology and doctrines is now on, when the US values resurrected by Biden may again appeal to some Chinese,” said Wang.
He also said that Beijing’s move to curb Biden’s airtime and exposure in Chinese state and social media contrasted the notion in the US, especially from the Trump camp, that Biden and his son Hunter had long been “in Beijing’s pocket,” with false allegations that Chinese companies bribed Hunter.
In 2009, Beijing mounted a crackdown on the widely-read Southern Weekend newspaper, based in Guangzhou and known for its liberal editorial stance, after then-President Barack Obama picked the influential broadsheet, not Xinhua or CCTV, to give his only interview during his first visit to the country that year.
Most members of the Southern Weekend’s editorial team, including its chief editor, were eased out in a management shakeup ordered by the party’s propaganda department the following year.