Curiosity and Indifference Toward U.S. Election

As it became clear that President Obama had been re-elected Tuesday night, Chinese netizens responded quickly online, often comparing the U.S. political process to their own. Tea Leaf Nation has translated a number of weibo posts:

According to Sina Weibo, there were more than 3.4 million tweets about the U.S. election in the past 24 hours. Why the intense interest in an election in a distant country? Or as @黑tian长政 queried, “Obama is re-elected, why do I feel happy too? But I don’t feel that about the 18th Party Congress…” [2]


Well-known blogger Li Chengpeng (@李承鹏) made the same point, but with withering sarcasm. He wrote, “Every time I see someone say ‘swing state,’ it’s a disgrace. How can there not be unity about something that important in a great country? We have ‘firm support, eternal following, absolute loyalty’ in every province, city and administrative region. Yesterday, I saw these representatives on China Central Television, and their expression told me, they won’t ‘swing,’ they will pass [measures] unanimously without blinking.”

At a U.S. Embassy-hosted event to watch the election returns, Chinese citizens were able to cast ballots in mock voting booths. From the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time:

“This is new to me,” said Mr. Zhang, a Beijing University grad student. “We’ve seen voting on TV. But to do it in person, I find refreshing.”

Mr. Zhang was one of about 1,000 people invited by the embassy for a “U.S. Presidential Election Results Party,” which was a kind of celebration of the right to vote. The crowd was made up overwhelmingly of U.S. expats, who crowded into a basement ballroom in a Marriott hotel next the U.S. embassy to spend time with other expats, eat muffins, schmooze and watch the election results on big screens showing CNN, CNBC and BBC.


But the voting booth was the hit of the morning. “America should be very happy,” said Li Yongping, a book editor from Hunan province. “It’s free to vote. That’s the best.”

On Twitter, @jajia wrote:

“The headline on the Global Times website reads: ‘A Seven-Hour Wait to Vote; This Election Is Shameful.’ Netizens comment: ‘We’ve already waited thousands of years!'”

Throughout the campaign, Chinese citizens have expressed mixed emotions about the U.S. election and its significance for China. According to a report in the South China Morning Post, Chinese people are more engaged than usual with the U.S. election this year as they are already focused on their own leadership transition:

Chinese have long been fascinated with US presidential elections, but interest is particularly high this year because Americans are voting at the same time Beijing is going through its own political transition. A generation of Communist Party leaders will step down next week to make way for younger colleagues after a highly secretive selection process.

For many ordinary Chinese, comparisons are irresistible.

In a political cartoon circulated online, an American voter covers his ears as the candidates verbally attack each other on TV, while a Chinese man struggles to hear anything from the party congress, taking place behind closed doors.

“Every has its pros and cons, but I do think it will be great if I get to participate and get to make a decision after the candidates tell me what their platforms are for the next four years,” said Guo Xiaoqiao, a freelance worker in human resources.

The Guardian sees things differently, reporting that the upcoming 18th Party Congress has distracted attention away from the U.S. election. However, while Obama has been the clear winner in informal polls in China, one observer tells the Guardian he believes that the Chinese leadership would ultimately vote Republican if given a chance:

[Shen Dingli, director of the Centre for American Studies at Fudan University] argued that while China did not officially have a preference – due to the country’s doctrine of non-interference in other nations’ domestic affairs – in reality it leant to Republicans.

“The Republicans are pro-development, pro-foreign trade, pro-efficiency, pro-,” he said, and were unlikely to push hard for cuts to China’s carbon emissions, while Democrats “are pro-American people and want to protect jobs”.

Shen added: “People claim if Romney is in power, the next day he will tackle China for manipulating the currency. It’s a joke. Romney will be China’s best friend because he will not honour his threats.”

The World’s Mary Kay Magistad interviews people on the Chinese street for their views on the U.S. election, and finds a variety of opinions:

Despite a general unfamiliarity with Mitt Romney, young, urban Chinese are much more informed about this election than past ones, as increased Internet access has diversified sources of news, and many are going online to follow the ups and downs of the campaign. From CBS News:

Millions of young Chinese also are hooked on the American election. CBS News met three self-proclaimed political junkies: Liu Jinyang, a journalist and students, Wang Hanyi and Zhan Wu.

Asked if the current rhetoric has been bashing China, Wu said, “Yes. Everyone knows the iPhone and the iPad, but without cheap labor supplies in China, how can they produce them in such a low ? It’s impossible.

They’re not getting their information from the official voices on state TV. They’re getting it — mostly unfiltered — from the Internet.

Hanyi said, “We’d just like to know what’s happening on the other side of the world.”

While it is questionable whether the news they are receiving online is really unfiltered, Chinese citizens are increasingly informed about the U.S. election system. A video by pop singer Gao Xiaosong explaining the complicated electoral college system (which often confounds even U.S. voters) drew one million hits in four days.

Regardless of the flaws in the American voting system, dissident artist Ai Weiwei still feels Americans should be proud of their political system. From CNN:

While the Chinese people desire democracy, they are skeptical of the U.S. system because its elections don’t seem to engender progress for Americans.

Democracy is a societal practice, and elections are only a part of it. The U.S. elections are certainly an exercise in democracy, but wealthy individuals and corporations can now pour significant amounts of money and advertising into manipulating the public.

The campaigns are mere showcases, extravagant yet empty — and the time, money and spent on the grand spectacle could have been used to solve specific problems for Americans.

Regardless, Americans should still be proud. It is essential for politicians and leaders to have open discussions about their policies, character, and beliefs. It is the key to public trust and understanding in an open society. I don’t think people like the way the debates and elections are designed, but at least they’re an outlet for people to make a stand.


[This post was updated at 10 pm PST to include the results of the U.S. election.]

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