Chinese Narratives about U.S. Politics: A Case Study on Chinese Social Media’s Treatment of the Kevin McCarthy Crisis

Ring Feng is a contributing writer and volunteer for the Carter Center’s China Focus. He is a junior at Emory University majoring in the Math-Political Science program.

On October 3, 2023, Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker of the House for the United States Congress, was ousted by a historical 216 to 210 vote. McCarthy, a Republican, was opposed unanimously by every Democrat, but decisively by eight Republicans from his own party.  This took place after McCarthy made a deal with Democrats to pass a spending bill so the nation would not face a shutdown of the federal government.

As with most major U.S. crises or missteps, there was a frenzy of opinions from influential members of Chinese social media. Most Chinese social media influencers can be assumed to have an ultimate goal of acquiring more followers and profiting from it.  Because the propaganda apparatus of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can pressure social media sites to censor their users and/or punish the parent company, it is in the interest of social media influencers to (1) promote narratives that align with the CCP’s perceived interests and (2) avoid narratives that do not align with CCP’s official position.

This article describes how Chinese social media outlets have presented the Kevin McCarthy crisis – a political failing of its competitor – and by implication the counter-narratives by which the CCP may wish to define itself.  The focus is on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform similar to Twitter (with nearly twice as many monthly active users)and WeChat public accounts.  I will note not only three main types of narratives that are being promoted actively, but also one narrative that is being avoided. All of these narratives shed light on how people in China attempt to describe, celebrate, and justify the CCP.

Narrative 1:  “Multi-party politics is the enemy of national interest”

Many popular blogs argue that McCarthy’s original compromise with the Democratic Party is an action that clearly helped promote the national interest of the U.S., as it avoided the government shutdown. However, they also argue that each party’s self-interests have prevailed over the commitment to national interest.  This reasoning says that the ultra-conservative wing in the Republican Party used the opportunity to oust McCarthy, and the Democratic Party permitted it to punish McCarthy for his backing out of an earlier agreement of spending authorization until 2025. This critique is not dissimilar from the points made by U.S. political pundits, but a glaring difference is that Chinese commentators on social media outlets use this drama to argue against political competition in general – that is, as opposed to the Chinese system in which the CCP is able to completely focus on national interest without ever being distracted.

Some commentators argue that in multi-party systems, the priority of each politician is to take power by actively and constantly competing with his or her political opponents, not collaborating or reaching out in order to serve the people better. Politics without the spirit of compromise, they say, will only result in chaos. Another commentary goes further, and suggests that if someone is considering the national interest of the U.S., it is inevitable that he will be the loser in the party competition, and this means there will be further deepening of political extremism and polarization. Another blog with a less aggressive tone also argues that it is the increasingly severe intra and inter party competition that led to McCarthy’s removal, and this shows the ruthlessness of American politics.

Narrative 2: “The fall of the American empire”

Another common narrative was that this political crisis is only the latest sign in the inevitable collapse of the U.S. as a superpower, and as the U.S. declines, China will rise to global prominence. As one blogger puts it: “Rationalism in the United States continues to decrease, while the rules as defined by the law and constitution are used as tool for the parties to compete. The fall of the U.S. starts from its politics.” One commentator declares that “America now is actually divided into two countries: Red America and Blue America… another Civil War is no longer merely restricted to imagination”. Another says: “The cause of the removal of McCarthy is a reflection of conflicts in race, religion, class, ideology, and wealth, which is far more complex than the American Civil War period. Hence if the country experiences another division, it will not be repaired like what happened in the aftermath of the Civil War.” The author concludes that when chaotic incidents take place during the 2024 presidential election, “we the Chinese people will happily watch the beautiful scenes in the U.S.”

“All we can do now is to laugh at a distance of the American failure”, suggests another commentator. “This is just the beginning of the collapse of the U.S. The show is on and we are watching from afar.”  One commentator goes as far as comparing the current U.S. to China’s second to last dynasty, the Ming: “The Ming Dynasty lasted 276 years, and the U.S. now is 247 years old. Will the U.S. survive until it is 276?”.

Narrative 3: “U.S. may divert domestic crisis into foreign adventures”

Some commentators warn that China should be cautious towards the U.S., as it will necessarily externalize its domestic chaos and conflict. This is in line with CCP’s desire to promote a narrative of inevitable foreign threats. Hu Xijin – one of the most followed bloggers on Weibo – argues that “While we are watching the show, we should also be prepared because the more chaotic and disorderly the U.S. is, the more likely that it will unleash its madness in the direction of China and create more conflicts between China and the U.S..” Another popular blogger, Kai Lei, indicates that “Looking back at history, every time political conflict in the U.S. escalates, it is accompanied by conflict transfer and crisis transfer tactics to provoke disputes in the rest of the world, seriously infringe the interests of other countries, and trample the international order. We should be prepared for this.”

Missing Narrative: “Comparisons with China’s own party dysfunction”

Unsurprisingly, no blogs compare the episode with the factional conflict within China’s own domestic politics. Interestingly, they avoid talking about Chinese politics at all. Referencing Chinese politics in the context of ugly American political drama, like the following, is actually very rare: “In American politics, the American people have no say at all – at most, they complain online and no one pays attention… Unlike in the U.S., China is working hard to build a political system in which the people are the masters of the country. We constantly solicit opinions and suggestions from various channels and fields… Even the comments of online netizens, the hot topics and big issues every day can be seen by the leaders at the highest level. China’s whole-process democracy ultimately allows people’s representatives to participate… U.S. Congressmen are just agents of capital.”

The rarity of direct comments on China’s political reality while criticizing the U.S. is a loud kind of silence. In the previous excerpt, it is clear that the promotion of China itself – a one party state – as being more democratic almost seems to border on absurdity or even satire. The strategy of focusing on criticizing the U.S. in order to imply its own superiority without stating the actual characteristics seems to be the prevailing strategy for promoting the CCP as clearly favorable to the national interest, despite its well known inefficiencies, corruptions, and promotion of policies that do not align with its own public good.