I just joined this website, but I was surprised to see no post about the American elections in China (perhaps I found it surprising because it has been so pressing on my mind). China Beat had a long list of coverage about China’s reaction to Obama (my favorite is “Now it’s ‘cool America'”), but I feel like many of them didn’t really examine how many Chinese people feel about Obama. They make it seem like the average Chinese people all liked Obama because of really solid political reasons, which I think is largely misguided. It is certainly no secret that the Chinese favored Obama over McCain, even though Chinese Obamamania may not compare to other countries, like in Rwanda where on the street in early November Obama pop songs could be heard. The reasons for this varied; many of the older generation, who I met either on the street or in cabs, would talk at length with me about America’s mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how America needs to solve such international crises which we created. The younger generation, however, loved Obama because he was handsome and young. Actually, they could not even properly recall McCain’s name; the most common comment was “We like Obama! Did you vote for Obama instead of…that other guy…what was his name?”
I find it interesting that such fervent political opinions come from a group of adolescents who have very little interest in their own politics. I have a friend who made what I thought was a very insightful comparison in his column for the Huffington Post between our generation in America and the same generation in China. I would like to quote him in saying:
China’s youth stand caught in a remarkably similar generational split as their American counterparts: We both are the progeny of a generation desperately polarized by ideology and history. Simply put, on both sides of the Pacific, our generation is sick of hearing about and fighting the battles of our parent’s generation.
For Americans my age, a large part of Obama’s appeal is his transcendence of the culture wars of the 1960s. In 2004, John Kerry labored to mention his Vietnam service at every turn. In 2008, John McCain made frequent reference to his heroic military service in Vietnam while Obama skirted the issue entirely. My generation didn’t even blink. To those my age, McCain’s invocation of the tawdry aura of pop princesses Britney Spears and Paris Hilton–figures with a decidedly less Baby Boomer flair–had far more relevance than 60s era figures such as Bill Ayers.
For their part, the Chinese youth come from a generation similarly split by ideology, albeit on a much more profound scale. While our parents are still licking their wounds from the 1960s culture wars, here in China, there is silence. Even today, there is simply no discussion of anything pre-Reform era as the divisions are just too painful. Unsurprisingly, among the youth of China, there is a visceral aversion to ideology and politics. Here the youth are not so much post-partisan as they are completely divorced from parti-anything. Names like Bill Gates and David Beckham have far more relevance to their lives than Marx, Lenin, or other vestiges of an ideological battle of a bygone era.
Admittedly, exactly how much of Obama’s post-partisan, post-ideological message penetrated and resonated here in China is uncertain. What is unmistakable to Chinese youth is that Obama’s election represents a change in America that needs no translation nor cultural context. Young, attractive, brilliant, and black, Obama represents to the Chinese youth a forward-looking America uninhibited by the ideology of a previous generation. Whether consciously or not, Obama embodies the very post-ideological spirit that Chinese youth subscribe to themselves.[i]
There is one exception to this lack of political interest (or at least a reason for supporting a political candidate) among young people, and that was young Chinese females’ support for Hillary Clinton. This obviously died down after she lost the primary, but before that, and even sometimes after, young women were unanimous in their support for Hillary, claiming that she represented women’s rights all over the world (as opposed to “we like him because he is a celebrity.”) This was a political message that made sense to them, perhaps because it was a battle they were currently fighting, as in the Post-Mao era, gender differences have become much more distinct.
So how do we explain this Obamamania among young people? Perhaps it is as simple as he is a celebrity (the Chinese I believe focused more on him in the news than anything else) and Chinese youth like the up and coming. Or perhaps it is that Chinese youth really see him as a new America, and a new world, that moves past these battles of the older generation. I’m not sure; all I know is that most of China was happy at the results from November 4 2008.
[i] I would love to provide the link for this, but unfortunately, the Huffington Post is one of those websites blocked by the Great Firewall. This is as much of the citation as I have: Davenport, Alexander. “Obama Brand Captures Chinese Youth.” Huffinton Post. 3 Dec., 2008.