12/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chinese Obamaphilia? Today, No. Tomorrow, Perhaps.

The Chinese are supreme pragmatists. They view the outside world as inherently dangerous, and revere stability and order as both tantamount to happiness and a prerequisite to progress. In a society without a fully developed legal system, anti-toxicity, in paint and milk, was never taken for granted, even before the melamine debacle. Insurance has always been sold as a disaster defense, never an investment. Savings rates are sky high, and threaten to become higher still due to the global economic crisis, one that has sent panic down the spine of China's newly-minted middle class. But denizens of the Middle Kingdom are also romantics. Driven by both trenchant Confucian ambition as well as Daoist and Buddhist release, Chinese dream of a tomorrow that is not only better than today but resplendently so, dripping with gold. Apartment complexes boast monikers such as "Magnificent Horizon," "Gathering of all Heroes under Heaven," and "Rich Gate." Even government propaganda uses over-the-top turns of phrase, discouraging spitting by promoting "eight shames and eight glories." The back seats of cars have enough leg room to make an executive feel like an emperor.

Polarized Impulses

Given China's tendency to swing between self-protection and fantasy, the country's ambivalence regarding the United States makes sense. On one hand, America, still exotic and not really understood on a deep cultural level, remains unpredictable, a powerful gorilla, lurching, striding, across the global stage in an intoxicated haze of absolutism, ready to advance its own interests. On the other, even during the darkest moments of the Cultural Revolution and Bush's tone-deaf unilateral Iraq misadventure, America never forfeited the allure of a country where anyone, irrespective of race, can realize epic grandeur. True, admiration of U.S has, in recent years, been murmured sotto voce. Political correctness mandates that American hegemony has become a danger to world order, even though MIT continues to attract China's best and brightest engineers. But American Idol, with its cuckoo contestants uninhibitedly confident in their ability to make the big time, remains a projective vehicle of Chinese aspirations. America, gilded fantasyland, never completely faded.

The Meaning of Obama

Within this context - an ambivalent China that fears our power yet reveres our optimism - we can assess reaction to President-Elect Obama's electoral victory. It has been muted but, under the surface, a tentative hope, even a romantic charge, crackles.

When asked about America's election, most mainland Chinese say they don't much care, as long the new president does nothing to block China's rise or disrupt global stability. There were no whoops of delight. We should not forget that most Chinese do not think President Bush has been detrimental to China's interests. Trade barriers have fallen. Taiwan independence was not supported. The rise of the renminbi has been orderly and, the current financial crisis notwithstanding, China has grown wealthier, more respected as a geo-political force to be reckoned with. After his administration's initial anti-China bellicosity and the awkwardness of the 2001 Hainan spy plane incident, relations between America and China quickly regained a pragmatic footing, greatly facilitated by our mono-maniacal focus on the War on Terror. So, in the most practical and relevant place - the Chinese wallet - an Obama presidency is not a cause for celebration. He remains mysterious and triggers an undercurrent of anxiety, particularly given the anti-free trade rumblings coming from Democrats.

Reverence for Winners

For all that, the Chinese are impressed, both with Obama and the country that elected him. Chinese respect his understated intelligence. His glide. His cool. But they positively revere winners. And Obama won big time, defeating established political orders, Democrat and Republican, as an archetypal outsider. The Middle Kingdom is a country replete with Han-style Horatio Alger tales of scholar-nobles nee peasants. Social mobility, the unheralded dynamic strand of Confucian social structure, remains a powerful motivator. Obama, a man of humble beginnings, personifies the potential of Everyman, born of modest means, to achieve not just success but Magnificence. He is an embodiment, albeit an alien one, of hard-earned, super-sized individual glory.

On a national level, the Chinese, matchless ethnocentrics, are struggling to cast off a 150-year inferiority complex sowed in the ruins of the Opium War and cultivated by disoriented Qing dynasty emperors and foreign opportunists. (This is true despite the Olympics games, heralded by everyone here as a triumph.) Obama represents a different model of success, a non-colonial one, and therefore has the potential to evolve into Michael Jordan-esque icon, transcending cultural barriers by tapping into nationalistic aspirations. The symbolism inherent in his election can be a potent font of mass affinity but not until aforementioned anxieties are calmed.

A Pro-American Awakening?

Has the Obama-mania that has swept much of the globe impacted China's view of America. Yes, but very tentatively and, today, only beneath the surface. The image of an efficiently benevolent America was shattered when we bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. However, Obama's election may yet redeem us, despite the blame currently being heaped upon us here for the world's financial distress. American-style individualism has always had great appeal to the Chinese masses. It's like Eve's apple, a succulent, entrancing - but forbidden - fruit. From Nike and Apple to Coke and Starbucks, U.S. brands have been built by appealing to the dragon in every Chinese heart. While overt rebellion is not sanctioned in a social structure as regimented as China's, the ability to morph from nothing into a star, lauded by society, has always been the Ground Zero of American appeal. Our idealism, easily liberated via a structured system with checks and balances, impresses ordinary Chinese who view their central government as "fair" but provincial organs as poisoned, inherently corrupt. (This is true amongst Communist apparatchiks and entrepreneurs alike.)

As one participant in the 1989 Tiananmen protests whispered to me, "I loved America. When I was in college, I believed in America. As an adult, I awoke from my dream. But maybe it wasn't a dream after all." He then continued, "Obama's election could never happen in a country with a history as long as China's." By shining a mirror on their society's limitations, maybe America can, yet again, be a beacon of hope even in the prideful, nationalistic, economically resurgent Middle Kingdom. We can, yet again, be admired as a well-oiled engine of dreams.

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