To take a whiff of the political climate here in China, one needs only to flag a cab. Amidst the din of blaring Chinese radio news, pervasive cigarette smoke, and mind-spinning maneuvers in rush hour traffic, Chinese opinion of America is usually easily discernible. But not this year.
"Bush will certainly win," insisted my first cab driver, "Bush is just too strong." My assurances that even the most mangled butterfly ballot would not be able to manage such a feat fell on deaf ears. While other drivers I encountered in the week before and after the election lacked the hilarity of my first encounter, most cab drivers seemed more interested in excoriating America's foreign policy than discussing the election. I was stunned by the relative lack of interest in the November election and decided to turn elsewhere for reactions to Obama's win.
I did not have to look very far. The enormity of the election was not lost on the youth of China. While their much older, cab driving compatriots seemed determined to address past grievances with their captive American audience, the college-aged students I encountered had a markedly different reaction: they beamed at the news of Obama's victory.
"He's young and handsome; he will look forward," gushed one college student. Never before have I seen such excitement for an American president. In fact, few Chinese students I talked to at Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University, could even name Obama's opponent. It was as if Obama's popularity had latched onto something much deeper than the typical bemused curiosity at America's democratic process.
It began to dawn on me precisely why this is the case. China's youth stand caught in a remarkably similar generational split as their American counterparts: We both are the progeny of a generation desperately polarized by ideology and history. Simply put, on both sides of the Pacific, our generation is sick of hearing about and fighting the battles of our parents' generation.
For Americans my age, a large part of Obama's appeal is his transcendence of the culture wars of the 1960s. In 2004, John Kerry labored to mention his Vietnam service at every turn. In 2008, John McCain made frequent reference to his heroic military service in Vietnam while Obama skirted the issue entirely. My generation didn't even blink. To those my age, McCain's invocation of the tawdry aura of pop princesses Britney Spears and Paris Hilton--figures with a decidedly less Baby Boomer flair--had far more relevance than 60s era figures such as Bill Ayers.
For their part, the Chinese youth come from a generation similarly split by ideology, albeit on a much more profound scale. While our parents are still licking their wounds from the 1960s culture wars, here in China, there is silence. Even today, there is simply no discussion of anything pre-Reform era as the divisions are just too painful. Unsurprisingly, among the youth of China, there is a visceral aversion to ideology and politics. Here the youth are not so much post-partisan as they are completely divorced from parti-anything. Names like Bill Gates and David Beckham have far more relevance to their lives than Marx, Lenin, or other vestiges of an ideological battle of a bygone era.
Admittedly, exactly how much of Obama's post-partisan, post-ideological message penetrated and resonated here in China is uncertain. What is unmistakable to Chinese youth is that Obama's election represents a change in America that needs no translation nor cultural context. Young, attractive, brilliant, and black, Obama represents to the Chinese youth a forward-looking America uninhibited by the ideology of a previous generation. Whether consciously or not, Obama embodies the very post-ideological spirit that Chinese youth subscribe to themselves.
Indeed, economically, China stood to gain more from a McCain administration than an Obama one. The fact that Obama's popularity endures despite his platform's relative anti-China tilt--to say nothing of the still relatively pervasive racist attitudes towards blacks in China--is a testament to the power of the Obama brand here. This message has reverberated so positively and disproportionately among my peers in China precisely because it is in tune with, whether consciously or not, their own exhaustion with polemical politics and ideology.
While there are likely 1.3 billion different rationales for China's visible support of Obama, there is a common underlying force. The very same rejection of divisive politics that propelled Obama to victory in the United States forms the foundation of how the youth of China today envision the trajectory and future of their nation. Thus, Obama's almost unreal popularity among the youth here reflects more on their own vision of China and their future than it does on the President-elect himself.
While I suspect my next chain-smoking cabbie will likely disagree, this is evidently change we all truly can believe in.