China Responds to U.S. Election With Heavy Censorship, Light Schadenfreude
The reaction among the United States' strongest allies in Asia — Japan and South Korea — was more severe, however, as local stock markets plunged.
As news of Donald Trump's shocking presidential win was reverberating around the world Wednesday, media coverage in China was oddly scant — and not by accident.
China's censors had issued advance orders to media outlets to restrict coverage of the U.S. democratic contest. All websites, news outlets and TV networks were told not to provide any live coverage or broadcasts of the election and to avoid "excessive" reporting of the story, a source who was briefed on the official instructions told the South China Morning Post.
In response, coverage of Trump's upset was carried only as a secondary story across the Chinese media landscape, with most outlets highlighting a meeting between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Vladimir Putin instead.
China's foreign ministry also stopped short of issuing congratulations to Trump in the immediate aftermath of the decision, instead stating: "China is closely following the U.S. presidential election, and expects to maintain healthy Sino-U.S. relations with the new government." (Chinese President Xi Jinping was also making calls elsewhere: he rang outer space to congratulate the astronauts aboard China's recently launched Shenzhou 11 spacecraft, wishing them "a victorious return.")
The press restrictions were part of Beijing's usual strategy of limiting the Chinese public's exposure to Western ideas and democracy. Instead, censors told Chinese media to report "in a timely manner" on any embarrassing scandals during the election and to criticize "in depth" any perceived political abuses. To that end, the People's Daily ran an editorial on the eve of the election saying that the current cycle had "undeniably revealed the dark side of so-called democracy in the U.S." The paper, which is the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, described the presidential contest as dark, tasteless, chaotic and nothing more than a "meaningless farce." A similar editorial controlled by Xinhua said the election was "an expression of all of the American political system's flaws."
As Trump's victory began to circulate around Chinese social media late Wednesday (local time), the response was a mix of surprise, schadenfreude and amusement.
Sina Weibo user Zhonghua Junlong said of the result: "It shows that the U.S. government and democracy have weakened. And at the same times it provided our country with a prosperous opportunity — it will make China more powerful."
A user named Fangsi de qingchun weighed in with a more democratic-leaning reaction: "I think Trump is the tragedy of the American people. How did he win? It must be a scam. Now I think cats and dogs can be president!"
A Pew Research poll conducted in October showed that Clinton was the slim favorite of most Chinese, but an SCMP poll published earlier this week suggested that Trump was viewed somewhat more favorably in China than anywhere else in Asia.
It's possible that China's censorship of the U.S. election insulated its stock markets from the hit experienced by other Asian markets in the election's aftermath. China's Shanghai Composite slipped just 0.61 percent Wednesday, while other Asian markets tanked — especially those of the United States' strongest allies in the region, South Korea and Japan.
The term "Trump Shock" recurred throughout South Korean media headlines Wednesday. South Korean shares plummeted to a four-month low, while the local currency fell against the U.S. dollar. The Korea Exchange's tech-heavy KOSDAQ trading board index plunged 3.92 percent and the benchmark Korea Composite Stock Price Index fell 2.25 percent. Onlookers voiced concern about Trump's protectionist calls during the campaign, particularly the prospects of renegotiating the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement inked in 2012, which Trump has called a "disaster."
In Tokyo, and across the Japanese archipelago, the election also was a sensation. TV stations in Japan rapidly rejigged schedules Wednesday afternoon to continue coverage of the U.S. election as the reality of a Trump presidency became apparent, while the Tokyo stock market crashed as the yen soared against a weakening dollar.
After posting early gains on the presumption of a Clinton presidency, by the time the Tokyo Stock Exchange closed at 3 p.m., a Trump victory looked certain and the Nikkei 225 index had shed nearly 1,000 points, or more than 5 percent, wiping billions from company valuations.
Sony's stock fell more than 5 percent, while Nintendo dropped more than 6 percent; both companies rely on global sales for most of their revenue and a stronger yen hits the value of those earnings. Even domestically focused entertainment companies were carried along on the wave of pessimism and uncertainty, with shares of Toho, Japan's biggest studio and distributor, falling nearly 4 percent, while TV network Tokyo Broadcasting Systems dropped more than 5 percent.
A manager at a major Japanese entertainment company, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were "shocked" by the result.
"2016 looks like it may be a turning point in world history with first Brexit and now this. I'm hoping 2016 doesn't go down as the beginning of the end," said the manager, who previously lived in the U.S. and wondered "whether I'd be allowed back in now."
Gavin Blair in Tokyo and Hyo-won Lee in Seoul contributed to this report.