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  • Writer's pictureXiaodong Fang

China's appearances and responses in U.S. presidential debates

There are only two presidential debates in 2020 and the second and final presidential debate is scheduled to take place on Thursday, October 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tennessee. In this blog, I discuss China's appearance and interference in U.S. presidential debates.

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How was China mentioned in U.S. presidential debates?


In most of the cases, how U.S. presidential candidates quote China issues in debates depend on three things: 1) the topic of the question, 2) the candidate's position on the related issue, and 3) the candidate's attitude towards China in general.


Since the Chinese government keeps suppressing people at home and posing threat to the free world, presidential candidates tend to use China as a contrasting case to support their claims on domestic issues. For example, in the 1960 presidential debate between Senator John F. Kennedy (D) and Vice President Richard M. Nixon (R), the focus of the debate was domestic issues, but both candidates referred to China a couple of times in the debate. In his opening statement, Kennedy used the "dangerous" Communist China as a contrast to support his position that "the kind of strength we build in the United States will be the defense of freedom." Nixon's opening statement, as a response, claimed that we are in a "deadly competition" with the men in Peking (China), and the United States should "move ahead" in the race, not be standing still.


When the U.S.-China relation followed a positive trend in the 1980s, there was little mentioning or discussion of policy towards China in U.S. presidential debates. In one of the 1988 presidential debates between Vice President George H.W. Bush (R) vs. Governor Michael Dukakis (D), Bush even praised that "change in China is absolutely amazing ... and we should encourage that."


As the political conditions in China deteriorate, discussions of China in recent presidential elections are generally negative. All the recent presidential candidates have, to some extent, criticized China in the debates. You can check the USC U.S.-China Institute's excerpts of presidential debates about China over the past fifty years here.


How did China respond to U.S. presidential debates about China?


I categorized China's reactions into three stages: before the debate, during the debate, and after the debate.


Expected that U.S. presidential candidates would criticize China in the upcoming presidential debate, Chinese officials issued statements to keep China out of U.S. presidential election drama beforehand. On the eve of the first 2020 presidential candidate debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, Chinese state media said "U.S. politicians should stop dragging China into domestic issues."


During the 2020 vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, CNN's feed was temporarily cut in mainland China when Pence began to criticize China's response to the Covid-19 pandemic. According to CNN, censors regularly screen live broadcasts on international media networks in China, ready to cut any segment from the air if it is deemed politically sensitive by the ruling Communist Party.


In the post-debate commentary, China would censor all criticisms in popular blogs and comments on social media platforms, shift the focus onto trivial issues, and even make personal attacks on presidential candidates. For example, Chinese state media tamped down the mentioning of China by either Trump or Biden after the first 2020 presidential debate, focused on the moderator of the debate, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, and willfully highlighted the negative comments and personal attacks on both Trump and Biden under the "What are people saying online?" session.


China's reactions to U.S. presidential debates pose significant threats to freedom and democracy. I urge presidential and other candidates to continue bashing China in the 2020 campaigns and beyond. I also call on international leaders, electoral candidates, free media, and other influential players to stop China's suppressing of freedom, defeat the authoritarian regime, and make efforts to bring democracy to China.



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