THE BLOG
01/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Meaning of Obama's Election for China

This has been a tough year for China--as we argue in our forthcoming book, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, it is the most traumatic year in recent memory. Between the Sichuan earthquake, the Tibetan protests (and international reaction along the Olympic torch route), and the frightening melamine poisonings of thousands of infants, the glories of the successful Beijing Games were muted. It has hardly been the triumphant year top officials hoped for. Now, with the financial crisis deepening, Barack Obama's election has left many Chinese uncertain about the future of U.S.-China relations.

That hasn't meant that there wasn't commentary (and joking, which we'll get to in a minute) galore as Chinese reacted to Obama's election. Dominant themes in the coverage included racial equality, financial security, a changing international profile for the U.S., and trade implications.

Reporters noted that many Chinese were amazed that an African-American could be elected U.S. president. Since the 1950s, discussions of U.S. institutional racism have been a central component of PRC grade school and university teaching on U.S. history and the history of the disenfranchisement of African-Americans and Native Americans an important rebuke to Washington's self-proclaimed democratic ideals. Though racism exists in China as well, the rhetoric during the Mao years was that China stood in solidarity with other Third World nations, especially in Africa (where China sent medical missions and other forms of outreach).

These views created lasting impressions of the U.S. as a bastion of deeply-rooted and persistent racism. Nathan Gardels at Huffington Post published a collection of international views on Obama on November 5, including a piece by Wang Jisi, the dean of Beijing University's School of International Studies. In it, Wang writes that "among Chinese intellectuals and elites, who are supposedly more knowledgeable about international affairs, including some senior specialists on America, stereotypes persisted. Some of them have believed that 'America could not accept a black president.'"

Despite China's increasingly complex (in some cases problematic) ties to African nations today (in which foreign aid from Beijing is being exchanged for access to natural resources), many young Chinese perceive that solidarity now rests not on throwing off the yoke of capitalist oppression but on the color of their skin. As Evan Osnos reported for the New Yorker (in a report carried on its website dated November 5, 2008), in response to Obama's election, one young man he interviewed said that "Obama gives greater confidence to people of the Third World...We, the black, yellow and other races, can be the same as the whites! We struggled for independence and, finally, won that. Now we have won in another field--political affairs--and in a superpower no less."

Observations of the role race played in the election spawned a joke that made the rounds in the days that followed. It was a perhaps predictable play on Deng Xiaoping's famous line, which has been riffed and mocked and modified in so many ways before, that it is foolish to be too ideologically dogmatic, for when it comes to catching mice, it doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, just whether it gets the job done (buguan heimao baimao, neng zhuadao laoshu, jiu shi haomao). The Chinese characters for the 2008 joke based on that old adage read, in essence: "It used to be that in the electoral process, the American people would only choose white presidents, never black ones. But then after the American people studied Deng Xiaoping Theory, they realized that it doesn't matter if a leader is black or white, a leader that can solve a crisis is a good leader."

Obama's seemingly impossible road to the White House (a rise certainly impossible in China, where bureaucrats slowly work their way up from posting to posting) also reinforced--in a year when CNN's supposedly "biased" coverage of the Tibetan protests caused many netizens to claim that the US was no longer a beacon of freedom--that U.S. democracy was real, not fixed. Chinasmack, a blog that translates Chinese online reports and dialogues into English, translated a number of reactions to Obama's victory speech (quickly translated by the same crack translation team that has--unofficially, of course--also translated the television show "Prison Break," which is wildly popular in China). Responses ranged from reiterations of "Yes we can" (shide, women keyi) to "Now there is hope for a Chinese to become president next time" to "When can China be like this?"

That is not to say that all the comments were positive--far from it. Chinasmack also translated comments that said "Hitler also got the citizens [sic] crazy support" and "I really hope he will be a lousy president." And while many Western media outlets reported widespread Chinese amazement and even happiness at Obama's election, most Chinese were actually taking a more cautious approach. For instance, in a New York Times collection of international reactions to the election, correspondent Jim Yardley wrote of one young man he interviewed that his "cool detachment is just a small reminder that if the idealism of young voters in the United States was considered critical to Mr. Obama's victory, their peers in authoritarian China are often less convinced of the transformative potential of democracy."

Despite the post-election flurry of news and comments, however, little is yet known about how Obama will deal with China--or how Beijing bureaucrats will approach the next occupant of the White House. Chinese commentary has focused on Obama's strong support of American labor and his potentially protectionist stance; as in the U.S., economic issues are at the forefront of Chinese questions about Obama's policies. In recent weeks, China has been plagued by a series of small-scale protests that many observers have linked to the slowing economy, closing factories, and rising worker dissatisfaction. It still isn't clear if there has been actual (or just perceived) rise in worker protests, but economic concerns are clearly widespread, and fears about slowing American purchases of Chinese goods or increased tariffs are at the top of the list.

Obama's picks for secretary of state and Treasury secretary give us some indications for how his administration might deal with China. Hillary Clinton, as the secretary of State, may be able to more actively negotiate with China than her predecessor. Bill Clinton was enormously popular in the PRC while President, and Xilali (as the First Lady was known) was also admired. Though there have been reservations in China over her protectionist stance during the primaries, her rapport with Chinese leaders would likely come in handy.

Even more notable are the Chinese connections of Timothy Geithner, Obama's nominee for Treasury secretary. He spent much of his childhood in Asia (his father, Peter Geithner, was an Asia expert working for the Ford Foundation), studied Chinese in college, and has an M.A. in East Asian Studies from John Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies.

This background doesn't give any indication of policy positions, of course, but as we have seen this year from Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's successful interactions in China is that it could be significant. Rudd speaks Chinese fluently, having studied Sinology in Australia and then spent time in China, including a stint as ambassador. In a path-breaking speech earlier this year, which Geremie Barmé analyzes in detail in China in 2008, Rudd broke through the rhetorical log-jam of Beijing's efforts to divide the world into "friends" and "enemies" of China--and did so in a talk given at China's premiere university and in Mandarin, no less. Rudd, after quoting from China's greatest twentieth-century writer, Lu Xun, and generally demonstrating a deep familiarity with the place he was speaking, insisted that he wanted to be a "friend" to China, but not just any kind. He wanted to be the sort who can tell a friend when he or she is making a mistake.

It is too soon to tell how much of an impact Rudd's approach will have on Chinese-Australian relations, but early indications are generally positive. This is worth watching, since one thing that many people on both sides of the Pacific agree about just now is that, in the years to come, it will be important for China and the United States to find effective ways to cooperate. This makes it very encouraging that there is likely to be at least one person with Obama's ear who can help him figure how to avoid the false choice between being an "enemy" of China or the sort of "friend" that has to refrain from criticism.


This piece originally appeared at the History News Network on December 12, 2008.