12/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can A Paper Tiger Change Its Stripes? Why Obamarama Isn't a Moment of Clarity for China

What makes life in China so trying isn't the constant threat of melamine or even the wide chasm of cultural differences. It's that every perspective, regardless of how well -- or ill-informed it is, must contain multitudes, and in those multitudes, both chaos and clarity stand on equal footing. Take the Democratic Process, for instance, one that Americans (and by extension, American expats) consider to be their inalienable right. To most Chinese citizens, it's an agent of chaos, with enough propositions, electoral votes, exit polls, red-and-blue-state-maps, and holograms of talking heads to make one's head spin.

In the past week, two momentous, poised-on-the-brink-of-clarity-and-chaos events occurred. The first, of course, was Barack Obama's election as the next president of the United States. The second was the indefatigable (or insufferable, depending on who you ask) producer-turned-rapper-turned-robo-soul-singer Kanye West performing in China. As someone who's had to endure breathless, rhapsodized accounts by Old China Farts, I mean, Hands, about the time that the Rolling Stones brought the house down in Shanghai, the latter actually seemed the more improbable of the two. For those of us still smarting from labels like Generation X and Club Apathy, it also felt strangely cathartic. Bless the Stones, but they're just long-in-the-tooth, would-be mavericks desperate to reclaim nostalgic glory. West, on the other hand, is the brash, charismatic, irrepressible voice of today. Anyone else glad that a change has come to musical heterogeneity?

Never mind that the concert, for all its hype and promises of histrionics (after all, we are talking about the man who threw not one, but two spectacular hissy-fits at award ceremonies) was a bit of a dud. West looked like a prize fighter phoning it in, rapping with too much method, and not enough madness. He lacked the soulful strut of a hip-hop impresario, breaking rank only to censor himself wherever the N-word or any other profane sentiment should've appeared in his lyrics. In this respect, he probably generated less street cred than the diminutive Icelandic singer Bjork, whose impromptu chants of "Free Tibet" at one of her China stops are probably directly responsible for the current freeze on foreign acts here.

The fundamental issue had little to do with the content of the performance, but rather its context. He may be bigger than the Pope in America, but in China, Kanye West isn't Andy Lau -- the seemingly ageless Cantonese singer/actor who continues to drive young and old alike into a frenzy whenever he makes a public appearance -- or Jay Chou, the Taiwanese pop wunderkind whose bastardizing of traditional Chinese culture is hailed as a revelation for China's youth. For the most part, local Chinese audiences answered West's listlessness with the universal signs of boredom -- butts glued to their seats, arms limply folded. Perhaps they were waiting for West to channel his inner Asian pop-demigod and appear in a blaze of pyrotechnic glory, complete with sparkling armor and archangel swagger. Instead, they shared the disappointment of the expats in attendance -- myself included -- who figured for someone so well-versed in self-promotion, he'd at least be able to exhort the crowd to -- I dunno -- mosh, or something. Anything.

By mishandling expectations and mangling perspectives, West allowed himself to be upstaged by his opening act in Shanghai -- an American-born Chinese pop star has-been by the name of Vanness Wu. Wu was a key member of '90s pop outfit F4, essentially Taiwan's answer to New Kids on the Block. Unlike the aforementioned Andy Lau, he's aged gracelessly, growing out his hair to resemble a C-list Korean soap opera star, and shamelessly riding the coattails of brighter industry lights like Beyonce and Wu's far more successful Chinese-American counterpart, singer Coco Lee.

But the moment Wu burst onto the stage to join West for his effervescent anthem "The Good Life," the collective pulse quickened. Cheesy, crowd-catering chants of "now throw your hands up Shanghai" are nothing new to local concert protocol, but something about the way Wu interpolated it was bombastic and galvanizing in all the right ways. He also knew exactly how to reach across the aisle, summoning the true spirit of Chinese pop idolatry -- embarrassingly clunky, retro dance moves -- while channeling the hubris of a Western pop diva with frightening accuracy. In other words, he succeeded where West could not -- talking loudly, and carrying a big shtick.

One day after the concert, in an otherwise nondescript Shanghai bar/grill, a different kind of spectacle was on display. You had to be a bumbling, heart-on-the-sleeve (liberal) American expat to un-self-consciously weep big, sloppy tears of joy when the polls in California closed, and Barack Obama was officially declared the victor. I won't get into all the grisly details, but suffice it to say, when Obama punctuated a century of American history with his now-legendary "yes we can's," heartstrings were left-a-jingle-jangling.

Euphoric clarity is easy to articulate; chaotic ambivalence less so. Chinese people generally refrain from effusive public displays, especially when it comes to politics -- preferring instead to reserve a more hallowed place for the outpouring of unfiltered emotions -- the Internet message boards.

Several Chinese websites have word-for-word, English-to-Chinese translations of Obama's speech, and the comment-erati have come out in droves. Some of the responses are punchy, if not a bit risqué ("It's like being a eunuch and watching others make love"). Others eloquently express the yeomanlike spirit of middle-class China ("I have a dream...Martin Luther's dream is realized. This certainly is also our dream. Return the power to the people, so that it is of the people, by the people, and for the people"). Still others contain more generic sentiments of Chinese nationalism ("Who cares who gets elected! So long as he's good for China!").

To summarize, in a country as vast and sprawling as China, the only consensus to emerge is that, well, there is no consensus. Lately though, the international media has been bullish on the prospects of a slowly developing social conscience in China's big cities, and the outspokenness of Chinese internet denizens certainly seems to add fuel to the fire. Might the mealy-mouthed, autopilot rhetoric of Chinese leaders finally be losing its luster? Sure, so long as you're willing to also consider the possibility that the One-China policy is as fallible as it is negotiable.

The point is, China's heterogeneity reflects multitudes, but also tensions within those multitudes that can't be quieted by boilerplate race and class memes. Some Chinese media types tend to hold out hope that Obama's healing power extends to a deeply fractured Asia, but that probably assumes too much. Like everyone else, Obama's perspective could also benefit from more seasoning. Chaos he knows all too well, but it's inherited from a wounded American psyche that has yet to translate into clarity. In the meantime, overcoming transnational boundaries will have to wait.

Still, as someone who appreciates the transformative power of words, it helps to know what larger truths those words hint at. Americans cheer for Obama because he signals the death of single-minded obstinacy, of one unilateral perspective disguised as many. But most of all, they cheer for him because his words make room for more flexible creeds. Like the fact that conviction no longer has to lack substance, or that flair can coexist with fundamental change. As an expat living in China, I've come to not expect such paradigm shifts in Chinese ideology, not because I believe any less in change, but because I believe that there are many paths to change -- some of them breeding chaos, others breeding clarity, all of them containing multitudes that help sharpen our perspectives. Obama's stirring acceptance speech was a defining performance, no matter where you were in the world. But it wasn't the only one. Just ask those of us who stood up and cheered with all our might for one Vanness Wu.

Like most things in China, Chi's blog is currently under construction (but coming soon!). In the meantime, he can be reached at