US election fascinates Chinese; some envy voters

AP, BEIJING

Tue, Nov 06, 2012 - Page 7

Where can a pop star score a hit by talking about the US Electoral College for 33 minutes? In China, where Gao Xiaosong’s (高曉松) straightforward explanation of the system drew more than 1 million hits in four days.

Chinese have long been fascinated with US presidential elections, but interest is particularly high this year because Americans are voting at the same time Beijing is going through its own political transition. A generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders will step down next week to make way for younger colleagues after a highly secretive selection process.

For many ordinary Chinese, comparisons are irresistible.

In a political cartoon circulated online, a US voter covers his ears as the candidates verbally attack each other on TV, while a Chinese man struggles to hear anything from the party congress, taking place behind closed doors.

“Every political system has its pros and cons, but I do think it will be great if I get to participate and get to make a decision after the candidates tell me what their platforms are for the next four years,” said Guo Xiaoqiao, a freelance worker in human resources.

Chinese delight in speculating whether US President Barack Obama will fend off Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but they are more captivated by Americans’ ability to vote for their leader. Their own leaders are distant figures whom they have no way of replacing.

“The 18th Party Congress is a meeting for the party. We ordinary people can only watch it as an audience,” said Wang Xiaojian, a 21-year-old Peking University student. “The US presidential election is a campaign that gets everyone involved.”

As Gao, a pop singer known for his syrupy ballads, found out, many Chinese are even interested in the US Electoral College, the often perplexing system in which the president is elected not by individual votes, but by the candidates’ state-by-state performance.

In a video from his online talk show that was posted on the popular video-sharing site Youku.com, Gao explained that the college is an attempt to balance the rights of states with the will of the majority.

“The opinion of the state is important; so is that of the people,” Gao said.

He called the US’ founding fathers the “greatest group of people in history.”

As a public performer used to censorship, Gao was careful not to draw direct comparisons to China’s system or its leaders.

However, even explaining the US’ election system is somewhat at odds with Beijing’s practice.

For decades, China’s public knowledge of US elections was limited to state propaganda, which depicts the election as a money game controlled by Wall Street. Campaign finance scandals and vote fraud dominates coverage. Even if Chinese do not wholly believe it, the repetitive line of state media has an impact on how they view US politics.

“The coverage is to serve the internal propaganda needs, but not explain how the US election works,” Chinese media critic Zhao Chu (趙楚) said. “You hardly see any reports that can clearly explain how the US election works.”

The less-censored Internet has changed the game, giving Chinese space to comment and exchange opinions.

Censorship on the US election has mostly been in form of guidance from censors. State media have been told to play down reports on the election and keep them short and factual, according to editors at two media outlets. Amateur translator Guo Xiaohui, who has produced Chinese captions of US political programs, said he believes giving the public an unfiltered look at US politics could get them thinking more about their own government, though he added that it also reveals the negative aspects of the US system.

“The two sides are very confrontational and uncompromising,” he said. “It would be better off if they can soften a bit, like the Chinese do.”

Others see the US system as clearly superior.

“I admire the voting rights protected by the US Constitution. I pay attention to the fairness and seriousness in the election procedure,” said Li Youli, a retired manager in a commerce regulatory agency in Beijing who learned about US elections through an English language class.

“China’s political system is so backward that it should implement one thing first: to unconditionally ensure the basic political right for citizens in a republic: the voting rights,” he said.

Admiration for the US political system does not necessarily extend to the US itself. US-China relations have been buffeted by tiffs over trade, nuclear proliferation and global hotspots like Syria and Iran. Romney has promised to label China a currency manipulator if elected, a step that could lead to a potential trade war.

Many Chinese resent what they see as scolding by US presidents, politicians and media about China’s human rights lapses and its authoritarian system.

A Pew Global Attitudes Project survey released last month found that nearly half of Chinese have a negative view of the US. Still, the survey registered a small increase among Chinese who like the US’ democracy, up to 52 percent, from 48 percent in 2007.