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To Chinese, Obama and Romney Aren’t So Different
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s promise to get tough with China may fall on receptive ears in the U.S., but in China his vow has barely registered, much less caused alarm.
Unlike in 2008, when the Chinese media and bloggers were intensely focused on the unexpected rise of Barack Obama, the current election has generated limited media coverage and online discussion. To an extent, this shouldn’t be surprising. China is in the midst of a once-per-decade, totally opaque and undemocratic national leadership transition (expected this fall but still unscheduled). Those Chinese who care about politics understandably care more about their own.
If there’s one theme that’s emerged from the limited Chinese reaction to Romney and the Republican National Convention, it’s that there’s little in Romney’s rhetoric about China that hasn’t been heard in prior elections. Romney’s in favor of imposing tariffs on Chinese exports if the country’s devalued currency isn’t revalued by his first day in office; he’s for selling more arms to Taiwan; and he definitely wants more aggressive democracy promotion.
Instead, what’s changed is a greater Chinese national sense that status as the world’s second largest economy (with a modernizing military, to boot) absolves it from having to worry about -- much less answer to -- that rhetoric. This sentiment is expressed in an unsigned editorial published last Thursday in the hypernationalist, state-owned Global Times newspaper. Headlined “America Slaps China in the Face, but We Have the Power to Kick Back,” the paper sniffs at Romney’s threats. The editorial opens by recalling the days when U.S. trade policy was an effective means of controlling China:
Years ago, a US decision to cut the quota of Chinese textile imports would place China under pressure. These days, the Chinese public no longer cares about a specific decision made by the US Department of Commerce, except in a small specialized circle. As China's interests expand, the importance of the US decreases among Chinese. ...
If Romney can win the election, he should feel lucky that his words have an audience in the US. He shouldn't expect the Chinese to answer to his beck and call.
President Barack Obama isn’t mentioned in the editorial, but he might as well be: The state-owned press uses nearly identical language to critique the Obama administration and its approach to China on almost a daily basis. From the perspective of the state media, there’s little difference between the two candidates when it comes to China. Last Monday, Guangzhou Daily, the official newspaper of Guangzhou’s Communist Party, made this point explicit in an editorial by Dang Jianjun, a commentator with the paper, which dissects the Republican Party platform and its aggressive military posturing toward China. Unsurprisingly, Dang concludes that the Republican platform reaffirms rather than supplants the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia -- a policy shift designed to highlight U.S. interests in the region via diplomatic and military means, such as the decision to send 2,500 U.S. troops to Australia:
Against the backdrop of a fatigued American economy and an empty national treasury, military means have become the most reliable way for America to impose its power abroad. ... In fact, not only Romney but also Obama realize this. Romney has proposed a policy to maintain significant military power in the Asia-Pacific region, and Obama has already carried it out.
Still, from the perspective of China’s blogs and microblogs, Mitt Romney is no Barack Obama. Obama is the more complicated figure who captured Chinese imaginations in 2008: a politician but also a potent rebuke to China’s ruling oligarchy and the limited opportunities that someone of modest background has to join its ruling classes. Whatever his failings in the eyes of many Chinese, Obama's ability to rise from a humble upbringing to the pinnacle of American power is well-known and embraced. Meanwhile, Romney’s background as the wealthy son of another politician is interesting to most Chinese only insofar as it echoes the aristocratic “princeling” sons of past leaders who wield considerable power in contemporary China (Xi Jinping, the incoming Chinese president, is one).
Still, few in China are under the impression that just because he comes from modest circumstances, Obama is sympathetic to their modest (but rapidly improving) circumstances. Rather, Obama's just an updated model of an American presidential candidate with no regard for China. Romney, in the eyes of some Chinese microbloggers, is actually more upfront about his antipathy toward China, and thus preferable to the hard-to-pin-down Obama. Wang Yilin, a student in Hainan province, takes up this notion in a tweet to the Tencent microblog:
Compared with Obama, who is an extremely dull, ungrateful and evasive villain, it might be a good thing if Romney comes to power. At least he’ll express his hostility to China with clarity and hysteria. Then we can just smile and watch how he acts it out.
Wang’s is a particularly colorful means of expressing Chinese boredom with the current election, but it’s by no means an outlier. Among Chinese university and policy elites, similar views -- expressed in a duller fashion -- are making the rounds on microblogs. Frequently, the tweets exhibit an uncanny savvy about two-party politics and a bold confidence about how little China has to fear. On Sunday, Lin Jue, the director of the World Economic Institute at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, summarized those feeling via a tweet from her account on Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog:
An American newspaper article said China is worried about Romney becoming the next president, but I don’t think so. Actually the Democratic Party and the Republican Party converge in their diplomatic attitudes, so no matter who wins the election, “containment” and “pragmatism” will continue to be the American policy approach toward China. The only difference is the former party will press China more in the name of “human rights” and “democracy” while the latter will press China in the name of “fair trade” ...
If there were an emoticon that could properly express a sigh, Lin no doubt would’ve added it to the end of her tweet. Nonetheless, as dull and predictable as the current election is for Chinese observers, there’s an unmistakable irony in those who lack votes critiquing the choices available to those who have them. Predictably, China’s strictly supervised newspapers aren’t on-record pointing out that irony. But, here and there, bloggers and microbloggers touch on it. Sometimes they do it explicitly, but the more powerful instances are often when they do it implicitly, as one anonymous Beijing microblogger did on Thursday, via Sina Weibo. Subtly, the tweet refers to the fall's expected Communist Party leadership transition:
When Chinese focus on American elections it always reminds us of this scenario: you run into your neighbor’s house, lift the cover off a pot in order to see what they’re cooking, and what seasoning they put in it. But when you’re asked about what your family cooks, you freeze and answer: "I don’t know. Our cafeteria will always publish the menu late, and we’re not offered any choices."
Mitt Romney might not be much of a choice in the eyes of many Chinese -- boiled cabbage next to Obama’s boiled chicken -- but at least he is one. For now, though, that’s not enough to generate interest in a race that few Chinese believe can have any measurable impact on their country.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.