BEIJING, China — Given how often China featured as a punching bag in the US presidential debates, it’s a wonder our frenemies in the East are still tuning in to follow the leadup to next month’s election.
But tuning in they are.
According to this Pew Research Center report, Chinese interest in the US election has reached unprecedented levels — a full 19 percentage points higher than when America went to the polls four years ago.
Part of this upsurge is undoubtedly due to China now having more than double the number of internet users than it did in 2008. Moreover, the now hugely popular Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter used by an increasingly sophisticated urban middle class, simply did not exist around the time of the last election.
But there is more to it than that. Amid an increasing sense at home that China has earned a leading position on the world stage, the US election matters more now than it did last time around.
Huang Lili, a 21-year-old student in Beijing, is part of a new generation of Chinese that looks at the US electoral process with inquisitive eyes.
“I wish China could have a more open process like the US but then again, I’m not sure a country as big as China will be able to use the same system, but I hope to move to America one day to pursue my studies so I find it very interesting,” she said.
The US election is also framed in a more meaningful political context for China.
Scott W. Harold, Hong Kong-based associate political scientist with the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit that focuses on policy, said that in 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign team explicitly refrained from making statements about China that it felt it could not sustain in office. That tactic effectively reduced China’s importance as an election issue.
Obama's Republican competitor this time, Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has repeatedly irked Chinese officials and media, as well as the public they inform.
Romney has said he will label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, and he has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration’s decision to postpone the release of a semi-annual Treasury report that must declare whether China manipulates its currency.
“I’ve watched year in and year out as companies have shut down and people have lost their jobs because China has not played by the same rules. In part, by holding down artificially the value of their currency, it holds down the prices of their goods,” Romney said in Monday's debate.
“It means our goods aren’t as competitive, and we lose jobs. That’s got to end. They’re making some progress. They need to make more.”
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and even some high-profile Romney supporters, have said the former governor's position would be tough to uphold.
Beijing taxi driver Chen Liu Xia, 57, picks up news through emailed links that his daughter sends him.
“I really like reading the debates but it is difficult to find in China,” he said, adding that he sometimes struggles to make sense of what he sees as the US’ convoluted political process.
The radio reports he listens to have made much of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” particularly China’s concern that the US' strategy is one of containment towards Beijing.
But in the face of Romney’s indications that he would move toward more overt confrontation, RAND's Harold suggests that for China, it’s a case of better the devil you know.
Harold said that in 2008, the Chinese public, unfamiliar with examples of ethnic minorities rising to positions of power, didn't understand what Obama represented — a possible result of state attempts to downplay the president’s story.
“The foreign policy community that watches China saw the election of Obama as representing some of the greatest promise [of the US political system]. There was a sense of US dynamism on display, and that this represented a threat to the Communist Party,” Harold said.
Obama, with his dashing good looks and suave delivery, made Chinese officials look staid by comparison, and may have unnerved senior Party figures to the extent that there was a reluctance to broadcast news of his election, culminating in marked unease over whether to telecast the president’s remarks during his state visits of 2009.
Such intransigence is meaningless in an age when the US presidential debates are streamed live on the internet, and later updated in China with subtitles. Sophisticated Chinese netizens can follow the build-up to polling day in real time, and the parallel timing with their own country's power transition is not lost on them.
Many users compare the two processes, but "Tech in Asia" China editor, Charles Custer, said Chinese netizens rarely hold up the US presidential debates as examples of “true democracy” in action.
Instead, many on Weibo refer to the fact that China owns a significant amount of US national debt and say that proves China's higher level of engagement with global affairs. Before China's power transition next month and amid the ongoing dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, popular nationalism in China is running high.
But no matter how engaged China becomes in the US electoral process, few expect China’s leaders to emulate Obama and Romney’s verbal sparring anytime soon.
As one witty Weibo user put it: “No matter how democratic China becomes, it will never be like that American presidential debate. Why not? Because at the speed our leaders speak, it would take them half a week to finish."