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.’”

In China, ethnic tensions and minority discrimination (especially against Western Chinese minorities) are persistent problems. China’s population consists of a 90 percent Han Chinese majority, and a 10 percent minority comprised of fifty-five officially recognized ethnic groups. And while both the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 People’s Republic of China anniversary celebrations were filled with extravagent shows of ethnic unity, recent months have demonstrated a reality, marked by violent separatist uprisings in Tibet and a series of race riots initiated by the Uigher minority in far western Xingjiang Province. As a Shanghainese friend recently explained to me, “In China, you can go to all of the best schools and universities, but if you are a minority you will never be allowed to join the top leadership. We all know this, but nobody dares say it.” Currently, the 9-member Politburo Standing Committee of the CPC – China’s highest political body – includes no minorities or women (and the 25-member Politburo itself has only one of each). Instead, it includes only Han Chinese men whom are unlikely to welcome, say, a Tibetan as the Chairman, much less, a member. Thus, Obama’s ascendance to America’s highest office struck many Chinese observers as a stark reminder of how far China is from fulfilling its own egalitarian ideals.

But beyond China’s more educated circles, few Chinese spend much time worrying about the future of American democracy or whether it has lessons for China. “He gives a good speech and he looks good,” explained Homer Lai, a small scrap metal dealer in Qingyuan, a southern Chinese metal processing center, over dinner last week. “He’s like a movie star.” To Americans, that kind of assessment of a political leader isn’t unusual. But in China, where leaders maintain low-key, opaque personalities, rarely even revealing the faces of their family members, it’s rare. As a result, many Chinese – especially the younger generation – are enthralled by Obama’s smoothness and eloquence. Last December, when I showed my monthly class Obama’s Grant Park acceptance speech, one of the students raised his hand and sighed: “I wish we had a leader who could give a speech like that.” His classmates nodded in enthusiastic agreement.

Meanwhile, on China’s popular, raucous, and increasingly nationalistic online forums, citizens are taking him to task for failing to fulfill his promises to improve the U.S.-China relationship (especially in regard to trade), and for appearing too willing to meet with Chinese dissidents (especially Tibetans). Skepticism also reigns concerning his upcoming diplomatic visit. “Whatever wonderful promises [Obama] gives,” writes one commentator on the popular huanqiu forum, “they might change when he goes back [to the U.S.], as there have been many instances before.”

On some level, then, Obama’s public reception in China may feel very familiar to him indeed: embraced here for his personal appeal and symbolic, unifying promise, while challenged on the specifics of his policies, China may be the closest thing to home that he’ll find on his week-long swing through the Far East.