Dispatch November 2009

Obama-mania Sweeps China

The Chinese are preparing to greet Obama like a rock star, even as they outspokenly critique his policies.

Three weeks ago I was finishing up the informal Saturday morning lecture that I deliver once a month to an adult education English class at a Shanghai-area community college (the topic that week was the American media), when a thirty-ish young man in a baseball cap raised his hand and announced, in swampy English: “I’m an Obamanachpht.”

The last part was unclear to me. “A what?”

“An Obamanachphhhth,” he repeated with emphasis.

I shook my head, invited him to the blackboard and asked that he spell it out.

“OBAMANIAC,” he wrote, in carefully drawn letters. “Many in China,” he told me with a confident nod. “Many of us.”

obama t-shirts
'Oba-Mao' t-shirts in the tourist Houhai district of Beijing (Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday, President Obama arrives in Shanghai for a four-day visit that is among the most anticipated by a foreign leader to China in more than a decade. No doubt, such major diplomatic concerns as rising trade tensions and the upcoming Copenhagen climate-change summit are factors in the frenzied attention being lavished on Obama’s impending arrival. But equally important is the intense, rock star-like popularity that Obama enjoys among average Chinese. In my Shanghai neighborhood, and in large cities up and down China’s East Coast, Oba-Mao T-shirts are readily available (the Beijing authorities rounded up supplies of the T-shirt in that city, early this week), and copies of his books can be found in pirate DVD shops, subway stations, and on street corners. Meanwhile, Chinese newspapers, magazines, and television stations are devoting intense, often fawning coverage to his life story—even as these same newspapers and magazines simultaneously give voice to a strident economic nationalism totally at odds with the policies being espoused by Obama’s Administration.

In China, that’s a stark turnabout from the Bush years, when the president was so unpopular that many American expats learned to avoid even mentioning him – despite the fact that his trade policies and general attitude toward China were largely welcomed by officials in Beijing. Among other issues, Bush’s privileged background troubled many Chinese. As the son of a President who himself was descended from a powerful political family, the younger President Bush’s advantages and rapid rise through the political system reminded some of China’s entrenched “princelings” – the sons and grandsons of China’s revolutionary leaders – who are now themselves inheriting Chinese political and economic power. “People began to doubt America under Bush,” explained a reporter for a state-owned Shanghai newspaper whom I recently joined for drinks. “There were just too many games that felt familiar.”

But Obama’s story, from his modest roots to his elite education and rapid ascent through the political system, is a cherished and frequently repeated legend in China. It especially resonates with a younger generation of ambitious Chinese who are eager to join, or perhaps altogether bypass the family and political networks that control access to so much of China’s promise.

In a recent phone call, Kent Kedl, an American business consultant and blogger with two decades of experience in China, told me about his Chinese staff’s reaction to Obama’s minority status during the 2008 election season. “[T]here just was this incredulity, this amazement, that he would actually have a snowball’s chance at the presidency - especially in light of the identity issues that China has had with its minority groups,” he explained. “There was this kind of ‘Aha!’ moment here. People thinking, ‘So that is a possible direction. This is the next step in being a modern society and economy.’”

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Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai.

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