The Chinese have always had a grudging admiration for Barack Obama. After the death of Osama bin Laden, a global black sheep, their respect will be significantly less unequivocal. In record time, his "justice" speech was faithfully translated by state-controlled media; tomorrow it will be looped on CCTV. Obama is, finally, the quintessence of "China cool."
A bit of background. Middle Kingdom admiration for Obama, post his election and prior to his administration's masterful assassination of Public Enemy #1, has been real but muted. Polite applause has been buttressed by two realities. First, he is black. He is an "outsider" who defeated the "system" -- i.e., the American political establishment -- to become the most powerful elected official in the world. The Chinese, acutely aware of their own incapacity to play outside the hierarchy, mythologize "peasant emperors," Davids who slay Goliaths. Every Han has a dragon in his heart; epic success of the "little man" is an incentive to continue reaching for the stars. Second, while ambivalent about Obama's rationalism vis-a-vis the PRC, the Chinese realize our president is smart, no one's fool. Bush, considered the epitome of uncouth, arrogant America, elicited smirks. He was derided as a "bullying simpleton," a cowboy who took his eye off the ball. They believe his monomaniacal fixation on the "war on terror" enabled a straight-line ascent toward superpowerdom. President Obama, as evidenced by a tougher stand on issues ranging from South China Sea shipping lanes to renminbi appreciation, is apt to speak softly and carry a big stick. Sans histrionics, he has let the Chinese know American global leadership is a fact of life.
That said, the Chinese have been unimpressed with his ability to shape the American political agenda. His performance has been "limp." How, they ask, can such an intelligent guy fail to resolve basic domestic conflicts, particularly given an unhinged Republican party? Pragmatic to the core, PRC citizens tacitly acknowledge the United States is still "the indispensable nation," the only one capable of safeguarding geopolitical stability. Our reluctance to tackle the national debt, end the Tea Party circus and repair crumbling infrastructure does not stir Chinese souls.
Today, however, I detected the first murmurs of adoration. Obama's brand equity has likely reached an inflection point. The laconic chief of one of Chinese largest apparel manufacturers (and proud Communist Party member) said to me, "Your president is good for America." Several taxi drivers, post the Abbotabad strike, proclaimed Obama lihai, a term suggesting a rare combination of steel and savvy. Obama got Osama. But the style with which he orchestrated bin Laden's demise constitutes a master course in advanced Chinese survival skills. Like a shark, he was silent but deadly. (The Chinese revere leaders who deploy absolute power sotto voce.) Until the time came to pounce, he was understated and resourceful -- a must in regimented society loaded with political booby traps and murky regulation. Like the best martial warriors, he meticulously surveyed the landscape before seeking revenge.
Prior to bin Laden's demise, Obama was, yes, a worthy adversary. Now, he will be both respected and feared. If he rides this wave to reelection, the president will possess the power to awe even wary, phlegmatic Chinese. Of course, few will utter this heresy aloud. But, from Shanghai to Xinjiang, the Middle Kingdom may be ready to, against the odds, give three cheers to an American leader.
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