What the U.S. Presidential Debate Looked Like From China

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Millions on the social network Sina Weibo agree: It didn't impress ... but democracy does.

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David Goldman/AP

The U.S. presidential race between incumbent Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney has caught the attention of the Chinese, and the first presidential debate was no exception. The debate began at 9:00 a.m. in Beijing, but well beforehand hundreds on Chinese microblogging platform Sina Weibo posted comments, articles, live blogs and advice on where to stream it. One user said his teacher played it for the class.

The term "debate" had over 9 million mentions, and most of the recent posts referred to the U.S. presidential debate. A search for "Obama," in Chinese, 奥巴马, came up with over 19 million hits. A search for "Romney," 罗姆尼, came up with about 672,000 after the debate had finished.

obama-weibo.pngSina Weibo

While Chinese netizens seem to be following the election avidly, many were cynical about it and critical of both candidates. Some were impressed by Obama but said he seemed to have lost his edge since his election in 2008. A user namedzongfeng wrote, "When Obama answered questions he had prepared, he was extremely smooth and unconstrained but when answering ones he wasn't ready he very obviously lost points." Another by the name Xisi said, "Obama's debating is as bad as the New York Jets' offense. "

Others criticized Romney's attacks on the president. After Romney accused Obama of taking the US on the wrong economic path, a user by the name Bo Bang said, "If I were a voter I would care more about what he can do and not his criticisms of what others haven't done." Others called Romney disingenuous. One blogger wrote, "At the end of every debate Romney gives this infuriating smile. Could you be a little more natural?"

One user noted that Romney said he believed in "religious tolerance and freedom," and then in the next breath said , "We're a nation that believes we're all children of the same God." Someone else responded, "I don't think anyone knows what they're talking about in these debates." One user hinted that there was not much difference between the two candidates, repeating an observation his dad had made that except for their ties, Obama and Romney looked and dressed exactly the same.

These Chinese users display a fascination with the openness and spectacle of the campaign, both traits absent from their own system of government. China is in the middle of a leadership transition, with the country's top officials chosen outside of the public view by elites in China's Communist Party

One user by the name wangran said after the debate, "What impressed me the most was not the war of words between the two candidates but the blue backdrop and the words to the US Constitution. This is their blessing and their luxury. They don't have to worry about holding up the basic system of their state. They don't have to worry that anything said will erupt into social instability. They can get down to business and talk about taxes, the deficit, health care, education." Another wrote, "The American presidential debate is so much fun." User GanHongYu said, "When can we have one?"

Despite their cynicism, Chinese netizens seem intrigued by American style democracy. A blogger by the name Jding (whose profile photo was of Obama) said, "Democracy is like a massage, whether it's good or bad, you'll only know once you've felt it."


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Lily Kuo is a reporter at Quartz covering emerging markets.

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