Some Chinese America-watchers seem to think the actor's oddball speech went quite well, but others are simply using it to practice their foreign language skills.
Left, Clint Eastwood scolds an empty chair where he imagines President Obama is sitting. Right, a Chinese site uses the speech to teach English. (AP)
Whatever the domestic impact of actor-director Clint Eastwood's speech endorsing Romney at the Republic National Convention last night, it's having a surprisingly robust international life. After bouncing around Iranian Facebook communities, which treated it with suspicious befuddlement, the Chinese Internet is putting the speech, perhaps somewhat characteristically, to much more practical use.
At least one of China's many English-learning sites, 171english.cn, has posted audio and the transcript of the much-derided speech, so that its readers can use it to practice their English listening and reading comprehension. "Audio and transcript for Clint Eastwood's Speech at 2012 U.S. Republican Party National Convention," reads the Chinese-language header, according to Beijing-based Atlantic writer Helen Gao. The site's English header announces, "Gelivable English Langauge Teaching: Exchange Cooperation Model Innovation." I don't know what that means, either.
These sorts of websites are prolific, and typically use BBC, NPR, or CNN recordings, Helen explained. U.S. government-sponsored soft power outlet Voice of America is a favorite of English-learners, she said, because the reporters tend to speak slowly.
"There aren't many people talking about" Eastwood's speech in China, Helen told me, but "the few that are, are pretty impressed." That's right: impressed with Clint Eastwood. While many of us are scratching our heads in the U.S., the small number of Chinese observers who are aware of the speech seem to have concluded that it went well, according to Helen's anecdotal encounters in Beijing and on the raucous Chinese social web.
"It got enthusiastic responses from the crowd," is the common impression, she said. "It's pretty much based on the crowd's reaction, because they have so little context to judge if the speech is a good one. But if everyone's laughing then it must be pretty good." The state-media response has been warm as well, as reflected in this Chinese-language Sina news service article, with some color commentary from Helen*:
Hollywood strongman Clint Eastwood appeared at the Republican National Convention today to support and warm the auditorium for Romney, and he was welcomed with enthusiasm. He excited the crowd with a famous line from Dirty Harry [the Chinese translation for this movie literally means "an urgent arresting order"] and made the audience very high. [This sounds very informal but is actually what's being said.]
Reflecting, Helen added of the speech, "It would definitely be difficult to explain to my mom why this is funny."
So, very lost in translation. But she also suggested that maybe Chinese reactions aren't really about the speech itself. "Here it's almost like an excuse to admire the American way of campaigning," she said, explaining that Chinese who are attuned to American news often appreciate American politics for "the informal feeling of it," "the ability to appeal to the crowd," and "the thrill of openly making fun of an 'official.'" It's "all very, very foreign," she said. It certainly is.
* -- When Helen showed me this article, I asked, "Is it this funny when you read how American media cover China? Do we get it this wrong?" I held my breath. She answered, "Not that I can remember," and then more seriously, "I think American media is much better at paying attention to what common Chinese people are thinking and saying."
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.