An American-Politics Junkie in China

How Washington’s partisan bickering looks from a one-party state

A bag bearing the image of U.S. President Barack Obama's face in place of the usual image of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong, in Shanghai, China (Aly Song / Reuters)

GUANGZHOU, CHINA — Inside a cramped dorm room on the campus of South China University of Technology, Yin Hao leads an operation to decode American politics.

The 29-year-old engineering student records every Sunday news show, listens to podcasts from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow as he walks to work, and scours Mike Allen’s “Playbook,” a DC-insidery newsletter for Politico. He knows more about the 2016 presidential race than many Americans.

Yin is a rare breed: a politics junkie and electoral horserace-watcher in a one-party state, where a small group of officials select the nation’s leader and the government severely restricts the press. The political process that transfixes Yin is not that of his own country, but that of someone else’s. He leads a team of hobbyists who translate and add Chinese subtitles to videos of U.S. campaign events, then distribute them via social media to a small, obsessive group of Chinese viewers.

“I have the freedom to talk about American politics,” Yin said, “so I want to use it.” Following the State of the Union address on Tuesday, he noted the two-party bickering that characterizes Washington. President Barack “Obama’s tone was a little more optimistic,” he said. “That makes for a very strange contrast to the GOP rhetoric, [which is] very much danger and terrorism.”

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The size of Yin’s group varies—up to about 20 people—as do the motivations of his colleagues and audience. Some just want to laugh at America’s unusual cast of presidential candidates; others seek insight into an election that could reshape the world’s most crucial bilateral relationship.

It’s difficult to measure Yin’s audience. He boasts nearly 34,000 followers on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. Some of his translations show up on video-sharing platforms, and others appear on Chinese news sites. But much of China still hasn’t heard of the Republicans’ Iowa front-runner Ted Cruz, the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders, or even the inimitable real-estate magnate Donald Trump.

That may change. Many of the candidates have already turned China into an attack theme. Trump accused the communist country of manipulating its currency and stealing American jobs. New Jersey governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie declared that he would fly Air Force One over disputed islands in the South China Sea, and counter Chinese hacking attempts with “cyberwarfare like they have never seen it before.” Another Republican contender, Carly Fiorina, proclaimed China “a rising adversary,” and on the Democratic side Hillary Clinton blasted the country on human-rights issues, calling some of its actions “inexcusable.”

Chinese officials have largely avoided commenting on the rhetoric, even if they do keep track. An op-ed in the Global Times, a state-run newspaper, said Trump’s initial popularity was “based on his big mouth” and chided Clinton for using the same kinds of “ignominious shenanigans” Trump was employing toward China.

“What they say in campaigns is one thing,” said Song Yuhang, an international news editor at a Chinese media outlet. “If elected into office, they will become more realistic.”

Either way, the election’s outcome will impact China. Writing subtitles is as close as Yin gets to participating in a political process where candidates woo the public for votes and the media reports on every move. His efforts underscore the gulf between the system he observes and the one he inhabits—the first where potential leaders spend millions (or billions) attacking each other, and the second where vocal competition among politicians almost never occurs in public, because the public lacks any real voice.

When I met him in December, Yin wanted details about my past experience as a Washington reporter covering national politics. How do journalists get information from the White House? Why do presidential candidates visit small towns and shake hands? What purpose do the Iowa caucuses really serve? Had I met Chuck Todd?

“U.S. elections are like Real Housewives without throwing wine or slapping each other in the face,” Yin said. “It’s pretty much the same, just a verbal slap.”

Yin Hao (Jessica Meyer)

It’s somewhat fitting that Yin developed an interest in America’s political system through its entertainment value, largely by watching The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. (Chinese people have access to little criticism of their own country, but can easily download swipes at America.)

Yin only started campaign-related translations last spring—in the midst of a doctoral thesis on 3D printing—when Sanders announced his candidacy and it felt to Yin like the race had officially begun. Now he spends most of his free time, up to five hours a day, curating clips from political speeches to campaign commercials. With limited hours and reams of material, he chooses which interviews and rallies merit translations. Yin, even unintentionally, acts as a filter for the information his fans view.

While he often works alone, Yin realized this fall that he needed assistance to tackle debates. China has in recent years seen the emergence of a volunteer translator subculture—some members of which operate in a gray area of copyright legality. Many provide Chinese subtitles for television shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards on the Internet. Yin came across an informal online subtitle group that focused on documentaries, joined it, and recruited some of its members to concentrate on U.S. politics.

One morning in November, Yin was among a half-dozen or so people who started translating the first 40 minutes of a Democratic debate, carefully matching time sequences and throwing in subtitles. When they finished, Yin put the video on Weibo and went to bed. The group interacted online; most have never met. Its members come and go, but Yin’s goal remains the same.    

“I want to create a place so everyone can watch the original stuff,” he said during a late dim sum breakfast next to the campus’s emerald lake. “So you can judge for yourself.”  

Yin found a gem in Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who appealed to viewers that might not otherwise have taken to American presidential politics, because he appeared to bridge entertainment and news. Yin echoed his mother’s sentiment to me: “I am now watching an American TV show called Election.”

Guo Xiaohui, a former car importer and translator turned standup comic, put it more bluntly.

“This election has become really weird,” he said. “Look at the founding fathers. It’s reverse evolution from Thomas Jefferson to Donald Trump.”

Part of Trump’s draw is simple fascination in a country where politicians are rarely flamboyant and few show public displays of emotion. Chen Yue, who sometimes works on translations with Yin, came up with the now-popular Chinese nickname for Trump: chuang po, or “broken bed.” (The phrase pops up all over social media.) A play on the tones of Trump’s Chinese name, the term suggests shoddy construction. Some interpret it sexually—not in a positive way.

“I just wanted to make a funny name for him to describe that his hotel isn’t good,” Chen, an amicable Beijing pharmacist, explained. Chen started subtitling because she wanted a way to practice her English and loved Jon Stewart’s ability to poke fun at politics. “Perhaps because we don’t have Facebook or Twitter we have the feeling that we want to see more of the world,” she said of those in her country who watch and create videos on American politics. Both social networks are blocked in China.

Yin himself is an unlikely practitioner. He grew up in an industrial town in Northwest China, where he frequently skipped English classes. He chose Germany for his master’s degree and studied communication technology. His cubicle at the university in Guangzhou holds a 3D banana he printed, and a picture of his mother.

Watching the ups and downs of U.S. campaigns—who’s “winning” in the polls at any given moment, who won the last debate—is “like watching a sport,” he said. “Someone wins, someone loses, and after a few news cycles, everyone forgets.”

In my discussions with him, Yin didn’t dwell on comparisons between the American and Chinese systems. And yet he operates in a world that constantly reminds him of the difference. Censors last year removed from Weibo a speech he translated by Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio that pummeled China’s human-rights record. Certain phrases—“enough is enough,” “Glass-Steagall Act,” or “feel the Bern”—just don’t translate. He stumbles over tax-code discussions and linguistic nuances, like the difference between “rival” and “enemy.” The influx of money into American elections, Yin said, looks to some like “open bribery.”

But Yin keeps trying to makes sense of America’s presidential race and how the country chronicles it. He invoked the Chinese Communist Party motto of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to describe what he’s witnessing from half a world away. “It’s American democracy with American characteristics.”