Chinese Debate America’s Next Leader—and Their Own

I watched Monday night’s presidential debate in Beijing with a young colleague who is a Chinese national. Xiao Kaijing is 26 years old and typical of a successful, young, female professional here in that she graduated from university, landed a good job with an international company, and aspires to own her own home one day. Her mother nags her constantly by asking, “Why aren’t you married? Why can’t you just get married?” But for Xiao Kaijing, marriage, even dating, takes a backseat to pursuing her career and living her 20s in the fun and fast-paced city of Beijing.

We listened together as Governor Romney said, “China has an interest that is very much like ours in one respect and that is they want a stable world … they want the economy to work and the world to be free and open.”

“Free and open?! China wants the world to be free and open, ha!” said Kaijing.

In her opinion, China may want the world to be free and open but it very much intends on staying secretive and opaque. That necessarily becomes harder as increasing numbers of Chinese have access to more information vial social media. In this election cycle an entirely new conversation is taking place in China solely because social media has exploded here in the last four years. In 2008, the forum essentially did not exist in China. Now, more Chinese are not only closely watching the US election, they are discussing it and, perhaps most importantly, comparing it to the political landscape here.

“American debate” was one of the hottest topics trending on China’s Weibo microblogging site this week. “President Obama” was the 2nd-highest subject on Monday leading into the last debate. One can argue that there is a desire by everyday Chinese to talk about the US election because it is so much easier than ruminating with any authority on the Communist government’s future. Just compare all the talk both American candidates have done in the last year to the complete public silence from Chinese politicians on the transition of power that will take place at the very highest levels of the Communist Party just two days after the US election is decided. Unlike his potential future counterpart Mitt Romney, heir apparent Xi Jinping is not inclined to declare exactly what he intends to do on his first day in office in an effort to sway public opinion because in China, public opinion is moot.

Still, the Chinese government has been somewhat tolerant of US election coverage. Most, but not all reports by the international press are left uncensored. The recent Time magazinecover story titled “The Next Leader of the Unfree World,” by Hannah Beech, has been banned in mainland China. Subscribers can only access it online if they have a VPN (virtual private network). The debates were not broadcast live on state-run news programs, but both CNN and the BBC were allowed to carry them in real time. 

Simply seeing that kind of coverage leads some in China to more strongly ask why their own future is not similarly addressed. As one Weibo user wrote, as cited by Josh Chin in the Wall Street Journal, “If you official Chinese media would pay half as much attention to China’s elections as you do to the American one, there would be hope for China.” 

The perception here is that there appears to be little in the way of hope or help coming from the US. Both candidates have vowed they will “crack down on China.” Romney repeatedly says he will declare China a “currency manipulator” from day one if elected. President Obama on Monday called China “both an adversary but also a potential partner in the international community if it is following the rules.” He later outlined all he would do to force China to do so. On the one hand, many in China are used to “China-bashing” every four years. On the other hand, Xinhua, the state-run news agency, took the unusual step of warning the candidates to tone down their anti-China rhetoric, saying, “The presidential candidates should be mindful of going too far in bashing China, if they feel they must do so in order to win votes, because the specificity of their promises will leave them little choice but to follow through.”

One perspective here in China, held by Xiao Kaijing, is that for all the talk about “cracking down” on China and forcing it to “follow the rules,” the US is not likely to change its political course on China no matter who is in office come January. If China is to change, it will be because China decides to do so because it has no choice. It will be a change that will come from the people; people who have benefited from China’s economic globalization but are now demanding the basic rights that they believe should come hand in hand with progress. What worries Xiao Kaijing is that no one on the US campaign trail is talking about the Chinese people. 

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