Adrienne Mong, NBC News Producer
BEIJING – Last week, three books about Barack Obama were published in China – to little fanfare.
Despite being prominently displayed inside one of Beijing’s larger bookstores, the books – two were his own and the third was a collection of his speeches and writings – attracted little interest the day we visited.
The shop clerk said sales were "healthy" for a new release, but "The No. 1 Bodyguard in China," a biography of a former Chinese security guard, sitting next to "The Audacity of Hope," drew more curiosity. No books by John McCain were available; apparently his writings have yet to be translated into Chinese.
Adrienne Mong / NBC News
Books about Barack Obama were just translated into Chinese.
"At the average person’s level in China, I’ve just found [the U.S. presidential election] to be less interesting than any other thing – the Olympics, the earthquake, other things going on in China that are of huge historical importance to China itself," observed James Fallows, who’s been based here for two years writing for The Atlantic Monthly.
Apart from the events he mentioned, there were also the winter storms that paralyzed half the country; the Tibet riots; torch relay protests; violence in Xinjiang; and now the melamine-tainted milk scandal. No surprise then that most Chinese have been focusing on domestic events.
But, as usual when it comes to China, it’s never that simple. As we talked to people about the American election, we found varying levels of interest and curiosity.
‘It’s just for fun’
"Many people pay attention to the election but with different motivations," said Professor Jin Canrong, Associate Dean at the School of International Studies. According to Jin, interest in China is broken down into three broad categories: official (government), intellectual (academics and policy analysts), and laobaixing (ordinary people).
"For intellectual communities, they want to learn something from the process and try to improve China’s approach of governance," said Jin. "But for the average people, especially young people, it’s just for fun."
"It’s entertaining for an outsider," agreed Li Xin, a young woman who edits an economic magazine. "That makes you want to watch and follow and see what’s going on next."
And while the government and think tanks have a sophisticated grasp of how the U.S. election campaign works, ordinary Chinese seem bewildered by the process. "I think the election process is quite complicated with all the rules of caucuses, primaries, and the general election," said Li.
Especially the election conclusion. One Chinese acquaintance told me he was stunned, when he first witnessed a presidential election after moving to the United States, to see a candidate concede defeat. "The only form of democracy we Chinese have ever seen really is what is in Taiwan," he said. "And that is completely different. The loser never just gives up."
Personality, not policy
"We noticed some differences in their policy towards China," said Jin. "For John McCain, he will pay more attention to [the] so-called military build-up of China, the religious freedoms, and Taiwan…. For Obama, we have some concern about the possible trade protectionism, some dispute around climate change, human rights, especially the human rights issue relating [to] Tibet."
But because the policy differences at this stage seem minute or elusive to most Chinese, they focus instead on the candidates’ personalities. "McCain, he’s a veteran, he’s very patriotic, and he’s 70. He’s got all this old stuff going on," said Annie Gong, a 20-year old college junior. "Obama, of course, he’s young, cute…but I think he’s kind of lacking in experience."
In general, young Chinese, however, seem drawn to the Illinois senator. "I think Obama is really exciting," said Li, who is 29. "He represents the fresh face of America. The typical American dream."
And in a country which counts 253 million people as internet users – more than in the United States – Obama’s internet savvy has been noted. "His team is very skillful in communicating with young people by the internet," observed Jin.
But for older Chinese, Obama’s race is a stumbling block. "I’ve been struck by how many high-level people in China are sort of thrown off their feet by the idea of a black person possibly as the president of the U.S.," said Fallows.
Racism isn’t enough to explain their reaction to Obama. Throughout the Cold War, the Chinese were fed a diet of anti-capitalist propaganda, a narrative that portrayed the U.S. political and economic system as corrupt and immoral. American capitalism, according to this viewpoint, was the root of its manifold social ills: inequality, sexual immorality, urban poverty, violence, and, especially, racism.
On Wednesday, one of our interns noticed that a translation of a U.S. article discussing how race could cost Obama votes was being widely circulated on some of China’s popular websites.
The fact of Obama as a U.S. presidential candidate creates anxiety for this older generation of Chinese. "How is it possible that someone who grew up in that system can succeed?" a local Chinese journalist asked rhetorically."I think his success upsets those people’s world view – their understanding of what American society is."
U.S. – China relations
So far, the Chinese government has stayed mum on its preferences. The leadership in Beijing appears to favor neither candidate, but "If there were a huge debate over the future of Taiwan, huge U.S. debate over a military rivalry with China, it might be different," said Fallows.
Also, relations between Beijing and Washington have been on a stable course in recent years.
"People tend to think, there will be no dramatic change in policy [with the incoming administration]," noted Jin.
But whoever ends up as the U.S. president, one thing remains clear to those living here: he will need to cooperate with the Chinese leadership. "There is such thoroughgoing connection that it just is fantasy that one can go without the other," said Fallows.
Ultimately, though, what is important to the Chinese is that America stays a true friend. "As a Chinese, I will be very happy if I saw one candidate say he [wants to] establish a very good contact with China," said Edmund Lu, a business school student. "But if he says he doesn’t like China or he supports Taiwan independence, I will feel very sad. I will not support him."