In April 2019, the China Data Lab started the “Congress Tweets” project. Since then, we have utilized Twitter’s API to gather 831,331 tweets, including 10,938 tweets related to China, authored by members of Congress.
Building off of previous blogs in China Data Lab’s Congress Tweets series, we will end our series by discussing whether there's a bipartisan consensus on China.
Young Yang, Harris Doshay, Lei Guang, Zeyu Li, Bailey Marsheck and Molly Roberts
In our last blog, we showed a remarkable convergence between Democrats’ and Republicans’ negative sentiments toward China. How deep does this bipartisan consensus go? Does this consensus involve repeated interaction on social media between Democrats and GOP lawmakers? Are they equally negative towards China when discussing the same topics?
We find that, even among the flanks of both parties, there exists surprising levels of consensus on sentiment expressed towards China on the vast majority of issues. While lawmakers may not mention members of other parties much when they tweet, they only have a few issue-areas where they appear to express different sentiment towards China. On almost all topics, Democrats, Republicans and their respective fringes tend to look the same when they discuss China. This consensus, however, does not mean Democrats and Republicans see eye-to-eye when discussing China. Indeed, despite their apparent similarity, American politicians across the political spectrum regularly use China to attack their domestic opponents.
In other words, while the parties may be converging, they still do not get along.
Our previous blogs noted that Republicans and Democrats have converged in terms of negative sentiment towards China. How does this bipartisan consensus fare when we break it down by topic? Are some topics more divergent than others?
In order to answer these questions, we compared the mean sentiment between Democrats and Republicans across various topics. The result in the chart below shows that the sentiment scores for most of the topics are quite similar between the two parties. Only on two topics, Chinese Fentanyl in the U.S. and Budgeting Allocation, do these two groups have statistically significant differences in sentiment score means.
Why these exceptions to bipartisan consensus? Domestic politics seems to be the answer. For the Fentanyl topic, Republicans emphasize Donald Trump’s work to encourage China’s ban on fentanyl analogues and key fentanyl precursor chemicals along with the ban’s touted positive effects for the opioid epidemic. Democrats, unsurprisingly, place more emphasis on the threats that fentanyl poses to Americans and the need for China’s consistent execution of the ban.
As for the Budgeting Allocation topic, Republicans focus on excluding entities with ties to the CCP from receiving government funds. Democrats, on the other hand, focus more on investing in U.S. competitiveness with China. Both of these differences hint at the conclusion we have been building towards — while Congress broadly agrees China is America’s critical competitor, they still fall back on using China as a cudgel to bludgeon one another.
We know, however, that within-party disputes can at times be just as rancorous as those between the parties. What, then, are the battle lines drawn within the two parties? Are progressives different from moderate Democrats, and are more MAGA-invested Republicans different from their relatively centrist counterparts?
When looking at how sentiment varies within parties on different topics, one pair of topics stood out to us: Exports & Trade Deals and Trade War & the WTO. For the Trade War, there are few partisan differences in terms of sentiment: everyone is negative. When they discuss trade through another lens, however, important differences emerge.
As we saw in our second post, Republicans dominate the topic of Exports and Trade Deals, a topic that is also a rare exception to the negative pattern of tweeting about China. When we look further, we detect significant disagreement within the Republican Party, as one can see from the sharp drop for the right-most Republicans in Figure 2 . While centrist Republicans have more positive sentiment on this topic than most other subgroups, even across the aisle, the farthest right Republicans have a negative sentiment towards China, in striking contrast to their co-partisans. In fact, the rightmost wing of the Republican Party is a far cry from the pro-free trade party of yesteryear.
Do Democrats have any pockets of disagreement within their party on China? Do those MCs most focused on China have a different view from the rest of Congress? To answer these questions, we explore two groups: Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and the U.S.-China Working Group (USCWG). As we know from previous posts, these two groups tweet less about China than the rest of Congress. What about the sentiment of those tweets?
U.S.-China Working Group (USCWG) vs. Non-USCWG
Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) vs. Non-CPC
Unlike with the far-right of the Republican Party, we don’t see any such divergence within the Democratic party. Figure 3 shows that most of the time, the sentiment was the same for both groups, and Figure 4 suggests that the sentiment of the USCWG is in line with the rest of Congress for most time periods. It seems like almost all issues show a strong similarity in sentiment towards China across the aisle and within the partisan fringes. Topics where relatively extreme MCs would diverge from the rest of their co-partisans (e.g. trade) are rare for Republicans and almost entirely absent for Democrats.
Let’s move on from topics and sentiment by looking at the networks created by MCs replying to and mentioning colleagues in Congress. Do discussions about China create many instances of interaction among the lawmakers, across the aisle or within parties, given that they seem to agree on so much in terms of sentiment?
We examined interactions among MCs by looking at how they “reply” to and “mention” one another on Twitter. 1 We found that members of Congress barely reply to one another, and when they mention another MC it’s much more likely to be a member of their own party. We only saw 8 replies talking about China in our entire dataset. When discussion takes place between representatives, they’re more likely to use quote tweets than replies. It may be that MCs barely reply to one another because reply tweets are not amplified by Twitter’s system.
For the most part, the lawmakers’ reply and mention networks are inward-looking.
There were significantly more mentions than replies in our database, but the overall number of mentions remained small. Even smaller is the number of mentions across the aisle. Altogether, 1,362 tweets or 10.4% of MCs’ China tweets in our database mentioned a colleague’s Twitter handle. 68.7% of those mentions were about someone from the same party, and only 32.3% or 428 mentions crossed the aisle. This may seem bleak, but as Figure 5 suggests, it’s significantly more than cross-party mentions in MCs’ Iran or Canada tweets.
An interesting finding in our analysis of the mention network is that there’s heterogeneity even within a given party. Some describe collaboration on China legislation, while others use prominent figures for partisan attacks. For instance, Marco Rubio shows more cross-party mentions when discussing bipartisan legislation, while Jim Banks only mentions his own co-partisans, except for when he mentions Nancy Pelosi or Eric Swalwell to attack the Democratic Party. Not all MCs are insular partisans, although some of these mentions seek to cement polarization rather than fight it. As we discuss below, not all mentions are positive or reflections of bipartisanship.
While classifying tweets, we came across a category that mentioned China but didn’t target China. Rather, China was mentioned in a war of words between the two parties. To round out our analysis, we decide to look at how much China is used as a kind of partisan cudgel in what are by and large domestic disputes. To do so, we hand-labeled some tweets as “crossfire tweets.” These are tweets that mention China, but use it more as an aside to attack domestic opponents. What we found was that, indeed, China is regularly used in that manner by MCs. In fact, China tweets have a higher proportion of crossfire tweets (22.9%) than Canada (10.1%) and Iran (18.0%) tweets. This all adds up to one significant conclusion for our series: while both sides of the aisle see China remarkably similarly, they often use China as a tool in domestic disputes rather than as a foundation for bipartisan action.
As you can see when you mouse over the pie chart, Republicans have an even higher proportion of crossfire tweets than Democrats. When you factor in what we know from our first blog post regarding Republicans’ greater frequency of tweets, it means that Republicans are responsible for a very large majority of crossfire tweets.
Crossfire tweets looked a little different depending on which party did the tweeting, although both sides emphasized the opposing party’s presidential candidate in 2020. For instance, Republicans used China to bash Biden and insinuate untoward connections between China and the President’s son, while Democrats used China to draw favorable attention to Biden and to attack Trump directly . Outside of attacking or supporting the Chief Executive, both Democrats and Republicans used China to advocate their domestic budgetary positions, and Republicans often used China to attack big tech firms for their allegedly unfavorable treatment . Overall, China is a potent tool in the Congressional repertoire, and MCs are eager to wield it in domestic disputes.
Throughout this series, we’ve seen a few main messages come together. First, there’s a lot Congress seems to agree on when it comes to China. While, on the margins, the two parties have slightly different focuses when it comes to topics and have slightly different sentiments when discussing them, overall there is a widespread similarity in sentiment across the two parties. While they may not highlight the same issues, their voluminous tweets show that they are very concerned about the challenge posed by China to U.S. foreign policy.
In spite of their shared negative sentiment toward China, America’s two political parties have not found China to be a consensus-inducing issue for bipartisan legislation. Members of the two parties read different sources on China, and their conversations on Twitter about China are largely within partisan bubbles. Furthermore, China is often caught in the partisan crossfire between the two sides, brought up not as part of a concrete discussion of issues but as a political tool to attack one another.
Republicans and Democrats may tweet plenty about China. Often, they may even tweet similar things in similar ways. What they don’t do, in the end, is agree.
Young Yang, Research Data Analyst, China Data Lab at the 21st Century China Center, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy
Harris Doshay, Assistant Director of Research and Writing, 21st Century China Center, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy
Lei Guang, So Family Executive Director, 21st Century China Center, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy
Zeyu Li, Master of Chinese Economics and Political Affairs (MCEPA) candidate, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy
Bailey Marsheck, Chinese Language Fellow for the National Bureau of Asian Research, Tsinghua University's IUP Program; holds a bachelor's degree from UC San Diego and a master’s degree from Peking University
Molly Roberts, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute, UC San Diego; Co-Director, China Data Lab at the 21st Century China Center, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy