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.
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.
"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.' "
Other Chinese web users said they were likewise captivated by the personal touches in Michelle's speech, which at over 60,000 retweets on Weibo and nearly 10 million views on video sites, appeared to be the most popular convention speech with Chinese web users. Her anecdote of president Obama sitting down with his daughters for dinner every night to help with "strategizing about middle school friendship" seemed to pull at a number of Chinese heartstrings. "To the fathers who always say you have too much work to spend time with your kids," some asked, "are you much busier than Obama?"
Another favorite line from the speech was, "At the end of the day, my most important title is still 'mom-in-chief.'" Zhipingdesanfentian, along with many others, felt Michelle's story, about the striving of her own generation and her hopes for the next, deeply resonated with the Chinese experience. "Regardless of your nationality and race ... motherly nature is in our DNA," she wrote. "I don't care much about fancy food or nice clothes for myself ... but when I think about my future child, I only want to do what I can to give him the best of everything."
While Chinese discontent with their own officials may be one reason for their eagerness in embracing Western leaders, another may be their distance from less-idealized American social and political realities. U.S. debates over contentious domestic topics -- immigration, gun access, abortion rights, same-sex marriage -- can feel like distant bickering to the Chinese public, which after all lives within a drastically different social-political context and is unaccustomed to watching their government clash publicly over policy.
Americans have learned to filter out rhetoric and to distance themselves from politicians' speeches in ways that Chinese have not had to, which can sometimes make following U.S. politics a confusing and emotional event. The feelings that RIOxu described in his Weibo message are not uncommon among Chinese watchers of American politics: "I've been paying attention to American election for months," he wrote, "and after watching Obama's early speeches, I thought Americans must be nuts not to vote for him; then I watched Republican Congressman Paul Ryan's speech supporting Romney, I thought you must be nuts to vote for Obama; after watching Michelle and Clinton's speeches in the past two days, however, I feel that even if I'm nuts, I will definitely still vote for Obama."
Still, some American campaign messages seem to have resonated particularly well in China. Many web users, after watching the speeches, repeated their favorite lines in the comment section: "Success isn't about how much money you make. It's about the difference you make in people's lives"; "When you've worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed"; and "We don't turn back, we leave no one behind. We pull each other up."
China, after all, is plagued by similar concerns as the country faces as its once-in-a-decade power transition: a widening income gap, a distrust of the government and the wealthy, a disgruntled middle class, and a young generation that faces a dismal job market and stalled social mobility. Sound familiar? A recent survey shows that the top 10 percent of Chinese households now controls 87 percent of the nation's wealth, an increase from 41 percent just a decade ago (the current figure for the U.S. is 74.5 percent). Most citizens, however, don't need to see the statistics to feel the difference: expensive groceries, skyrocketing housing prices, unaffordable hospital fees, the exodus of children from wealthy families to high schools and universities abroad, the list goes on.
It can seem that many Chinese, judging by the scale and sentiment of their online discussions of the U.S. political conventions, express more favor for the Democratic Party's campaign over that of the Republican Party. The Democratic Party's apparent orientation toward the working and middle classes, as well as its emphasis on a greater government role in improving economic and social equality, seem to appeal to a Chinese public growing exceedingly cynic toward its own corruption-laden government, and yearning for a visionary, trustworthy leadership.
"'We're all in this together,' what a great governing concept!" houyangrandy wrote admiringly under Bill Clinton's speech video, quoting the powerful line from the former president. "But for us, it can only be 'you are on your own.'"
The online reactions to Romney's speech seem to have been a bit more lukewarm. While some praised him for his public speaking skills, others criticized his vague platform and his "hegemonic" foreign policy, a common phrase in China to describe all that is loathed about American policy toward China. "Romney is a good actor," kongziV commented. "He criticized Obama and talked about his own belief, which is all fine. But he didn't talk much about what he is going to do." Lianhuashenglotus picked up his reference to China in the speech: "He asked: 'Does the America we want borrow a trillion dollars from China?' and the audience shouted: 'No!' So scary! Are they not going to return it? Anyway, it's good practice material for English speaking and listening comprehension!"
However Chinese observers perceive American leaders -- as rock stars or devoted parents, enlightened thinkers or convincing actors -- their reactions were a moment of transparency and understanding rarely achieved between these two societies, which are often obscured from one another by the strongly worded, assumption-driven discourse between the two governments and in mainstream media.
"Chinese public is paying more attention to [American politics]. They would rather see with their own eyes, listen with their own ears, and make their own judgment," Guanxinsam, a volunteer translator of the campaign videos told me when I asked why he undertook the project. In his late 20s and working a daytime job teaching test tutorials to Chinese students who hope to study overseas, he says he translates videos in his spare time, with the hope of presenting to the Chinese public "an authentic picture of the clash of speeches and opinions abroad." His other translation projects, he explains, include segments from The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, and the British Prime Minister's weekly Q&A session with the House of Commons.
Why are these videos gaining such traction on Chinese social media? Besides the entertaining drama and the celebrity appeal, it's "the back-and-forth dialogue, [the ability to] openly question and discuss politics," Guanxinsam told me, all factors that are taken for granted in the U.S. but not as normal in China. "In fact, everyone knows the reasons."
But Chinese attitudes toward the U.S. are complicated, often tinged by resentment and suspicion as well as admiration. Within the enthusiastic Chinese applause for American leaders, it is not difficult to detect a hint of bitterness and jealousy: lines of generous praise are often followed by a note of self-doubt on behalf on their own nation. The cynicism in some comments can sometimes reflect anti-Western sentiment, or a distrust of politicians from the U.S. as well as China.
"[Whether] it is real democracy or good acting, should we be watching with admiration or standing by with folded arms?" wangran, a private investment bank manager wrote in a much-tweeted message. "Keep watching, and we will be able to tell."
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