06/06/2008 09:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Brand in China: Newly Launched, Building Equity

China has long been Clinton Country. Bill, during his presidency, was seen as handsome, charismatic and virile. His efforts to build a "strategic partnership" with the PRC were embraced by a population aching for acceptance as global player. He was able to articulate an American world view -- a moral imperative to embrace individualism and human rights -- without talking down to people from different cultures. And no one, from neighborhood grannies to slick entrepreneurs, understood the fuss whipped up by Monica Lewinsky's blue dress. Bill's narcissism never registered. Yes, he was a cad, but his conquests were part of his charm, not to mention the spoils of power.

Hillary, too, has long been admired as an American Iron Woman. Her autobiography, Living History, was an instant best seller. Chinese, while Confucian to the core and profoundly patriarchal, admire strong females. It was Mao who exclaimed, "Women hold up half the sky!" He demanded they contribute economic muscle to glory of the motherland. Wu Yi, a former vice premier and one of the most powerful women in recent Chinese history, remains a role model for all women, a combination of grace and strength. Mrs. Clinton, too, comes across as a paragon of no-nonsense, grounded determination.

The Smart Choice? Until her defeat, Hillary was practically everyone's preference. Despite her swerve to the left in matters of trade, she was "safe." The Chinese revere "big" -- Microsoft and IBM are actually cool -- because scale projects reliability and commands trust. And the Clintons led the biggest, most powerful political franchise in the world. In an ever-changing universe in which yin shifts relentlessly to yang and back again, in a society in which outsiders are "dangerous," in a global marketplace in which new rules are forever being written and rewritten, the quest for stable order is a primal urge. Hillary Clinton, a consistent headline grabber since Deng Xiao Ping made his earth-shaking 1992 Southern Tour, was the prudent choice. Like Haier, the giant appliance manufacturer that guarantees 24-hour service, she was tested. She was, yes, Ready from Day One.

Obama, of course, was not. Despite his quintessentially American rise, he was uncomfortably "exotic." His brand was too hip, launched with new-fangled internet technology and targeted to dreamy youth. He was breezy but ephemeral, shiny but unsubstantial, a disarming political neophyte. He was a Gagenau or high-end Apple, interesting to look at but unfamiliar, not quite right for Mr. Zhang's kitchen or office. One friend of mine, a savvy media type who works for Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp, shook his head, insisting that America was, yet again, being "deceived and seduced" by a "flavor of the month."


Winds, however, are shifting. Enthusiasm for Obama is percolating. Yesterday, during a meeting with employees from a traditional state-owned enterprise, I probed preferences. Nine out of ten would vote for Obama over McCain, describing the former with adjectives such as lihai (a quintessentially Chinese expression meaning "intimidating but impressive"), tupou ("breakthrough") and liao bu qi ("incredible"). Even taxi drivers, the canaries of Chinese public opinion, are now giving him a cautious thumbs up.

Respect for Winners. There are two reasons for (still-fragile) pro-Obama sentiment. First, Chinese revere winners, not challengers. Obama, in vanquishing the mighty Clinton machine, won big. Before he clinched the nomination, Obama was a fool's gamble, "speculative," high risk. But he has suddenly been "endorsed" by the establishment and is now an icon, a successful game changer. Mold-breaking is tolerated in China but only as a means to an end, a "tool" of advancement within an omnipresent, hierarchical order. And Obama has become the order. In the Middle Kingdom, "rebellious" brands, from Vivien Westwood and Diesel to Jeep and Red Bull, must tread carefully. Bill Gates is popular because he, too, forged a new paradigm; he reordered the digital universe. Having the courage to drop out of Harvard became cool only after he became the world's wealthiest man.

Support for Outsiders. Second, the underdog status of Obama, a black man operating outside a white political establishment, initially worked against him. Post clinch, however, it's a huge plus, a font of admiration. (It's true many Chinese are somewhat racist; skin whiteners do gangbuster business here. That said, pragmatism always carries the day.) Obama was -- in fact, still is -- an untested commodity. But his Rocky-esque triumph, not to mention an understated self-possession, is something Chinese relate to. Like Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets superstar who slays trash-talking giants with quick-witted resourcefulness, Barack Obama "invaded," then vanquished, an old guard. And he did it by dint of razor-sharp intelligence and an dazzling personal narrative.

China is capable of lurching from self-flagellation -- witness the virulent anti-Confucianism during the Republican era and Cultural Revolution -- to defensive, chest-thumping nationalism. The country's swings are driven, in large part, by a realization that, to continue rising, China must integrate itself into a culturally-alien geopolitical superstructure. (The recent anti-French demonstrations triggered by pro-Tibetan protests were as much as reaction against perceived unfair, uncontrollable anti-Chinese bias as a defense of territorial integrity.) New to the party, China is still disoriented, tentative. By ingratiating himself to the masses and penetrating upper echelons of power, Obama has achieved what a sometimes-insecure China aspires for itself.

Obama's rise still makes many in the PRC nervous. Will he abandon Bush's, yes, pragmatic China policies? Will he lapse into old-style protectionism? Will he have the muscle to impose his will across a Byzantine political landscape? Will he have the stuff to keep the world safe from danger? No one knows. But, for now, the Chinese, long accustomed to justifying their own place at the big boys' table, are happy to give a cheer-and-a-half to the skillful, scrappy Senator from Illinois.