Envy and Spectacle: America's Presidential Race Finds an Adoring Audience in China

Chinese web users seem to lean toward Obama, but mostly seem love the populism of American politics, a sharp contrast to their own system as well as a reminder of how much the two societies have in common.

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Chinese youth pose next to a cardboard cutout of President Barack Obama. (AP)

After the Democratic and Republican National Conventions closed, as candidates charged back to the campaign trail and as the American media moved on, the campaign speeches made their way across the Pacific Ocean to China, where they are still echoing. While the conventions might be derided within the U.S. as political theater, they have sparked nuanced, even fond discussions among tens of thousands of Chinese, about the differences between the American and Chinese political styles.  

First lady Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month was such a hit on the Chinese web that one user started a translation contest on Weibo, China's twitter-style service, for a line that had rapidly become the most popular: "We were so young, so in love, and so in debt." Thousands pitched in their ideas, giving creative spins to the unembellished sentence. It was reinvented in the edgy vocabulary of Chinese hipsters, in various provincial dialects, and, in some hilarious attempts, in classical Chinese. Some of the last, if translated back into English, might read roughly as: "Once upon a time, our love saw no boundaries and debt had no limit" or "In those years of green plums and bamboo horses [Chinese idiom referring to youth], our love was ocean-deep, and debt mountain-high."

The translation contest, embraced by Chinese web users with giddy interest, is just one indication of a growing Chinese fascination with American politics and political figures, kindled by the colorful events and bustling campaigns of the U.S. presidential election season. In the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands of Chinese tuned to the convention speeches as they took place. Volunteer translators rushed to attach Chinese subtitles to online videos and photos of these speeches just hours after their delivery. Mesmerized by what they saw, web users poured their feelings into discussion threads on Weibo that ran thousands of posts long. Despite popular sentiment here that can be at times hostile to the U.S., Chinese web users have this month expressed wonder and praise for American politicians' public demeanors, oratory, and the personal characters that they perceived shining through.

The Chinese adoration for U.S. politics might surprise Americans who have grown frustrated with their politicians and cynical about their government. But it's a reminder of the wide gulfs between the American and Chinese systems, and of a growing Chinese discontent toward their own leaders. It also reflects the similarities in the economic and social challenges both countries face, and the hopes and concerns both citizens share; a possible explanation for the conventions' resonance in China is that the issues the campaigns are addressing also happen to be on the minds of many Chinese right now.

A trait of American politics that Chinese seem quickest to embrace is its open, energetic campaign and the very public personalities of its politicians. Long accustomed to following Chinese politics through the limited scope of state media, where they see robotic officials droning through scripted speeches to halls of stone-faced listeners on the evening news, Chinese observers often refer to the vivid and engaging American campaigns as "entertaining political carnivals," and liken political figures to rock stars and movie actors.

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"I only understood one word," touzilicai-shangchao said on Weibo after watching former President Bill Clinton's speech, "but the confidence, humor, and ease he carries shows infinitely superiority over those who just read off a script. People offstage are clapping -- and notice -- voluntarily and spontaneously!" It's a reminder of how different the two political scenes can feel that a Weibo user would think to notice that the audience applauded voluntarily.

"Look at how full of energy American elections are," Jerrychanist commented on Republican candidate Mitt Romney's speech. "Unlike in a certain other country, where everyone raises their hands to agree, and everything passes unanimously."

"A presidential speech there looks just like a rock star's concert, with fans listening to their idol and cheering for him," houqingchundexiaoyoushang observed of President Obama's speech, unintentionally (and, probably, unknowingly) echoing a frequent Republican criticism of Obama. "On the other hand, how big is the chance for common patriotic citizens like me to get excited for a concert of our own leaders in my lifetime?"

Weibo user Stefason said he wished he could put his excitement into action: "My blood is boiling. I can't wait but wish I could vote for Obama immediately!"

Chinese watchers often say that it's the deeper aspects of American politics, beyond the charisma of individual politicians, that they find most moving. Among them: humanity and humility that American leaders seem to so highly value. Having learned in school about the Communist proletarian principles and the motto "serve the people," many Chinese people also value these concepts as defining qualities for good leaders, but often express disillusionment when party leaders don't seem to follow those same ideals.

"When our leaders stop lecturing us with a stern face, when their wives stop putting on airs to give us a lesson, when they can reach to us with sincerity, as 'one of us,' that is the time when China will become civilized," reflected Wang Weijia on Weibo. His message alludes to a recent incident in an eastern Chinese city that stoked public anger, in which a drunken Chinese official and his wife verbally and physically bullied a flight attendant. For this reason, Wang said, he liked Michelle Obama's speech, which conveyed precisely the message he was looking for: "Michelle touched me not as a first lady, but as 'one of us.' "

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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