China’s government isn’t shy about looking for ways to highlight democracy’s failings, and the U.S. presidential election provided plenty of raw material. Hillary Clinton’s emails, Donald Trump’s locker-room talk, the debates: Every low point was touted and cataloged on state media. On Election Day, the Communist Party’s official newspaper offered a closing argument: Trump versus Clinton was symptomatic of an “illness” in the American system.
Plenty of Americans would agree with that assessment. But not as many Chinese as you’d think. On social media, where more than 570 million users congregate each day, the election has instead been a constant reminder that China’s political system is comparatively opaque and inaccessible. To the many weird outcomes of the ugly and chaotic 2016 campaign, add one more: Many Chinese are touting it as an example to follow.
The business of criticizing liberal democratic norms is as old as the Communist Party. State media have long gone out of their way to show the violence and suffering that can result from mass democracy movements, such as the Arab Spring. It has often portrayed American elections as corrupted by shady campaign finance, rampant lobbying and dynastic politics.
Barack Obama’s swift rise from a modest background to the presidency in 2008 upended that narrative. He quickly became an aspirational symbol for a younger Chinese generation that knows how important family connections, wealth and the right ethnic background are to achieving power in their own country. Even today, with his policies wildly unpopular in China, Obama remains a symbol of what’s possible in the U.S. — but not at home.
One would’ve thought that the 2016 election, with all its bitterness and divisiveness, would have eroded this optimistic narrative among Chinese, and made a pretty good case against U.S.-style democracy. Instead, quite the opposite has happened. Many on social media have argued the campaign has further highlighted the limitations of Chinese politics.
“Idiots cite the respectability of our country to respond to the U.S. election scandals,” wrote a Sina Weibo user on Election Day. “They fail to see that the scandals are a result of American press freedom.” Others acknowledged how hard it is for politicians to follow the whims of public opinion, but one noted a very un-Chinese upside to this problem: “You can’t abandon the people, and democratic society is a remarkable place.”
But perhaps the most eloquent defense of the U.S. system is “Why Are You Laughing at the U.S. Presidential Elections,” an anonymous polemic that’s been circulating widely and has been read tens of thousands of times, in various forms, since mid-October. It argues that for all the ugliness of the election, U.S. politics has a lot of advantages over the Chinese system. “Is a system where all decisions are made behind closed doors and you don’t have to lift your feet or know anything, really better at making decisions?”
From this perspective, the many scandals of 2016 are far from a sign of weakness. In the eyes of the anonymous author, they’re a sign of a thrilling openness: “Americans are so serious, they are willing to pick through the bones — everything defective about America’s future leaders is shown to the world for Americans to judge. Is this so backward?”
For those circulating the post, it certainly isn’t — even if it may have seemed that way to Americans this year.