Obama & Romney: “The Panda Sluggers”

After yesterday’s U.S. presidential debate, which saw more than its fair share of China bashing, The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos explains the current Chinese sentiment toward the two candidates:

To China, the greatest surprise of the campaign has been that its one-time love affair with Mitt Romney has collapsed; Xinhua now seems to delight in calling him “a veteran investor who used to profit handsomely from doing business with China” but has now reimagined himself as the most vehement anti-China presidential candidate in memory. After Romney’s latest pledge to punish China for undervaluing its currency, the state news service warned that China “perhaps would be forced to fight back,” triggering a global trade war. Romney does not mention that the last U.S. President to declare China a currency manipulator—a step on the way to trade restrictions—was a Democrat, in 1994. George W. Bush considered the move counterproductive and it hasn’t been tried ever since. (This might be moot: the Romney supporter Maurice Greenberg said last week that Romney is unlikely to follow through on the promise once in office.)

Neither candidate is much loved in China these days. When Obama entered office, he was especially popular among young Chinese, though he was a mystery to Chinese foreign-policy analysts, because he defied everything they thought they knew about American politics. (In their calculations, an African-American with little experience could never defeat a rich war hero with extensive political connections, much less the wife of a former President.) Over the past two years, a period when the Administration has tacked toward a more confrontational position, Obama’s favorability in China has declined significantly; a new Pew poll says that the number of Chinese who see their country’s relationship with the U.S. as coöperative has sunk from sixty-eight per cent to thirty-nine per cent.

And yet, over-all, the Chinese seem to prefer, if only slightly, the panda slugger they know to the one they don’t. “If this election was online and open to the whole world—like voting for N.B.A. All-Stars—I could vote for Obama,” one Chinese commentator wrote after the debate. “For China to continue to reform and develop, we need a stable environment. We’re already familiar with Obama’s attitude toward China and his style, which makes it easier to predict.”

The Washington Post’s Max Fisher points out that while Chinese state media “responded with its usual intemperance” to the China rhetoric on display in the debate, Chinese social media chatter was much more subdued:

“You really have to know the context well to find the debate and town hall meeting interesting,” Helen Gao, a Beijing-based Chinese journalist, suggested. She followed debate conversation on both Twitter and on Weibo, China’s Twitter, which she called “a graveyard.” The scant Weibo response seems, anecdotally, to have been characterized by three things: some light offense-taking, mostly from Romney’s comments; praise for the American political system and its practice of publicly challenging leaders; and a touch of confusion.

The nuances of American politics also seem to have puzzled some Chinese viewers, who hear contradictory messages. Helen said that it was “confusing” for some watching in China that the U.S. is simultaneously “asking to improve work conditions for Chinese factory workers while the candidates are vowing to bring jobs back.”

Perceived American slights often provoke umbrage on China’s outrage-prone Web, but no matter how tough Romney and Obama got, they didn’t seem to spur very much reaction in China. Reports of bird poaching were generating far more interest online. That might change as Chinese state media ramps up their own huffy response, but here’s a sampling of the Weibo commentary during the debate, which Helen has kindly translated.

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