For Chinese viewers, the first U.S. presidential debate took place at 9 a.m. on a Thursday morning, in English.

It was broadcast and streamed live from several outlets, but it did not generate much live commentary on the country’s microblogs. Of course, the low level of online Chinese interest shouldn’t be a surprise. China has its own politics and issues, and -- especially in a U.S. election year that some in the Chinese media have derided as boring -- those remain far more pressing to most Chinese than what happens to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in Ohio.

But in this case, at least, the story isn’t found in the live reaction to the presidential faceoff, but in the delayed response. In the days following the debate, interest grew rapidly, driven largely by streamable clips posted throughout the Chinese Internet. It’s impossible to say just how many people have watched the encounter between Romney and President Barack Obama in the almost two weeks since it took place, but if traffic counts at various hosting sites can be trusted, it’s clear that the audience has been relatively large.

On Sina.com, China’s most popular web portal, a page containing streaming video of the complete debate -- without Chinese subtitles -- has been viewed more than 705,000 times since it was posted on Oct. 4. A version with subtitles posted by the online arm of Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television on Oct. 5 has been viewed more than 640,000 times. Other hosting sites with debate clips have garnered smaller, but still impressive, viewership, suggesting that the total audience may well be in the millions.

Of course, not all these viewers watched the debate in its entirety. Still, based on the size of the comment threads below those streamable debate clips, there appear to be plenty of viewers who watched for long enough to form opinions (an admittedly low bar). As of early Oct. 17 in China, the all-English version of the debate at Sina.com had generated 1,169 comments; the subtitled version at Phoenix’s site had generated 1,451 comments.

Discussion of the debates isn’t confined to comment threads. An Oct. 16 search for “Obama Romney debate” at Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog, generated 198,000 results (some of which are news summaries, others commentaries, re-tweets and information related to tonight’s debate). These are modest threads by the robust standards of China’s entertainment-driven online communities, where the Chinese version of the singing reality show “The Voice” dominated trending topic lists for weeks and regularly generated millions of comments (and tweets) in a matter of hours. But the debate numbers aren’t small, either: In the days that followed the first debate, “Romney” debuted (and remained) on the lower rungs of the trending topics list at Sina Weibo. “Obama” entered the list too, though not for the first time. The debate itself, under the guise of several different search terms, also trended.

Still, for all of the traffic, it’s exceedingly difficult to assign any particular reason for the sustained popularity on China’s Internet of the first official Obama-Romney encounter. A brief scan of Sina Weibo reveals a range of possible reasons, from microbloggers who watch the debates to improve their English, to others who simply enjoy political fisticuffs. China’s growing role in the U.S. national economic debate, no doubt, is fueling interest in how it’s being discussed in the presidential debates, and -- no surprise -- considerable microblogging energy has been expended on the subject.

It’s also very much the case that Obama remains a personally popular figure in China (his China policies and rhetoric, however, are another matter), where his rags-to-riches story is embraced in part for the powerful contrast it offers to the nepotism that defines, and blocks access to, the upper reaches of Chinese political power. Last week’s vice-presidential debate has barely registered online in China, suggesting that perhaps it’s Obama’s star-power that continues to drive traffic.

Likewise, the debates themselves provide Chinese microbloggers with a powerful contrast to their own country’s opaque and tight-lipped politics. For those observers, the debates are a novelty and -- in non-democratic China -- the wall-to-wall coverage of them by Chinese state media is a particularly rich irony. Take, for example, Yi Lan Cherry, the Sina Weibo handle of a microblogger in Guangzhou who favors Obama. She watched the debate, and like most of the Chinese microbloggers who’ve commented on the outcomes (not to mention the Western media), she appears to have given the win to Romney. Still, she saw good reason to recommend the debate, and on Oct. 5, tweeted a link to the Sina.com hosted version, with this commentary:

“A televised debate is really exciting. I wonder when Chinese leaders won’t use scripts, exhibit political transparency, and face the topics most crucial to people’s lives. I still support Obama but over the course of these four years he’s just been busy cleaning up Bush Jr’s messy affairs.”

The comparison between China’s tight-lipped leaders and the American president and his challenger isn’t just sharp, but it’s also timely. Just two days after the U.S. election in November, China’s leaders will gather in Beijing for a once-per-decade leadership transition that -- so far -- has been shrouded in secrecy. The group’s most important task will be to unveil the membership of China’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, but few outside the top layers of power know who the candidates are or how they’re chosen. A Shanghai microblogger, tweeting from his Sina Weibo account the day after the first debate, praised the U.S. system while bitterly lamenting the Chinese one:

“In the American presidential election debate, both Romney and Obama’s performances were fully worthy of the presidency. A governor is able to ridicule and challenge the president’s tax policy. This kind of transparent democracy is absent in my country ... they are in a virtuous cycle, we are still spinning in an outdated, dead circle.”

Earnest rhapsodies praising the virtues of the debating format might strike many Americans as hopelessly naive, but in China they are not only sincere but also common. Significantly, they are not limited to the candidates and the debate format, either. Chinese microbloggers -- reared in a media environment where news coverage is expected to reflect Communist Party priorities -- eagerly embrace punditry, and especially post-debate fact-checking. Among those most enthusiastic about these U.S.-bred innovations are those Chinese microbloggers who don’t actually live in China and more directly experience the Western media. On Oct. 5, a Sina Weibo microblogger who uses the handle Déjà Vu Ken, and who identifies himself as a Chinese citizen in Canada, tweeted:

“After the debate CNN immediately checked the validity of each argument, informed the audience which was true and false. They had guest commentary and the host’s analysis of the situation, and quickly produced voter opinion poll results. I wonder how long it will take for our country to have such transparency when it comes to choosing our leaders.”

It’s a question that certainly won’t be answered at this fall’s Communist Party Congress. But so long as China’s media continues to broadcast the debates, and China’s media censors allow it, China’s microbloggers are going to continue asking. Their numbers could soon grow, too. Tonight’s town hall-style debate will touch on both domestic and foreign policy, and may include a discussion of U.S.-China policy and a spike in Chinese interest leading up to next Monday’s foreign policy-focused debate.

(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.

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net