O n Sina Weibo’s “hot topic” page on Wednesday afternoon five million people posted messages containing the word “America”. No great surprise that: news had broken around lunchtime in China that Barack Obama had won the US election. More puzzling: there were far fewer messages with any mention of China’s own transition of power, which is also underway this week.
There are different ways to understand this. Firstly, over recent few days, netizen posts referring to the Communist Party’s own leadership change have been ‘harmonised’ – a local euphemism for deleted – while messages discussing the race for the White House have not.
Secondly, China’s netizens may actually be more interested in the workings of US politics than their own – on the basis that there is at least something for them to observe, unlike the hidden machinations of elite politics in China.
A cartoon doing the rounds this week bore this view out. In it, an American voter covers his ears as the candidates verbally attack one another on TV. But next to him, a Chinese man strains to hear anything at all from the Communist Party Congress, taking place in Beijing this week.
Many of the reactions to Obama’s win echoed that sentiment. “This is not Obama’s victory but a victory for American people. I envy them,” wrote one netizen. “How come China has no soul-stirring election like this,” asked another.
In fact, a recent Pew poll found that China was one of the few countries where interest in this week’s US election was actually higher this time than last, when Obama’s victory captivated a global audience.
That ongoing interest in China – as well as an understandable sense of confusion over the voting system used to choose the US president – even led the composer Gao Xiaosong to produce a song explaining the complications of the electoral college vote.
Many Chinese seemed up-to-speed on events, however. Some posted that an Obama win was better for China than a Romney victory, even though both men had taken a tough line on China in the three presidential debates. “Obama’s re-election avoids a possible trade war between China and the US. It’s a good thing for both countries,” wrote weibo user Siweijiang.
“Obama has no bad intentions for China. Congratulations on his re-election,” wrote Wangjingwangjing2010.
But not all were so upbeat. Li Daokui, an academic at Tsinghua University, wrote on his weibo: “Obama will focus on international affairs. It is worrying that China will become the target of Obama. We should be mentally prepared for that.”
But there was also a fair amount of sarcasm too. “Pity the poor American people, who only learnt who their new president is today,” one netizen scolded. “The Chinese system is clearly superior. We already knew who our new president will be several years ago!”
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