If the Chinese could vote in the U.S. election, President Barack Obama would likely win in a landslide. That win, however, would have almost nothing to do with his policies toward China (the Chinese aren’t fans).
Nor would it have much to do with Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s embrace of China-bashing as a campaign strategy. Rather, it would have almost everything to do with style, symbolism and online China’s aspiration for leaders who offer something more than the stone-faced, opaque politics presented by President Hu Jintao and other top Chinese leaders.
Consider “Gangnam Style,” the hit Korean song, video and horsey dance that since its release in July has become a sensation around the world, including in China. In late September, Reggie Brown, a U.S.-based Obama impersonator released “Obama Gangnam Style,” a satirical version of the song which features Brown as Obama dancing alongside a very believable Michelle Obama impersonator. It soon migrated to Chinese video-sharing sites, where it went viral.
Unlike in the U.S., where the video is viewed as a good-natured joke, in China it appears that many people believe “Obama Gangnam Style” really features Barack and Michelle Obama. On Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog, users have posted thousands of tweets and comments on tweets proclaiming that the Obama video “blows up” all other Gangnam Style videos and satires, while noting that -- at 51 -- the U.S. president “is still very agile and skillful.” Meanwhile, the credulous voices compete with cranky reminders from other users that, “This is not Obama! This is not Obama!”
In one sense, the large number of Chinese microbloggers who believe Obama is in the video is the social media equivalent of a foreign newspaper reprinting a story from the Onion, the preeminent American satirical newspaper, as reported truth. (The Beijing News did it in 2002; Iran’s Fars News Agency did it in September.) But for the most part, in those cases the fake stories -- misconstrued as embarrassing truths -- are re-purposed into negative propaganda.
Few Chinese microbloggers have used Obama Gangnam Style as a platform to espouse negative views about the U.S. Rather, among those who appear to believe the video is authentic are many who seem to pin its credibility on the manner in which the video affirms positive impressions of Obama, especially in contrast to his more staid Chinese counterparts. To be sure, nobody is writing extended essays on the meaning of freedom in the age of Obama Gangnam Style. But taken in large doses, the mostly punchy tweets convey a positive opinion of the U.S. and its president.
“Such things can never happen in China,” comments a Sina Weibo microblogger in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, alongside two emoticons depicting surprised faces. The sentiment -- expressed over and over again in the Obama Gangnam Style threads, without challenge -- is that China’s leaders are highly reserved in public and unwilling to show anything of their true characters.
A scattered few netizens go a step further in their praise of Obama -- and implicit critique of the Chinese leadership style. “I can truly say that the President is an interesting and amiable man of the people,” tweeted a young poet and calligrapher in Hunan province with a link to the video. Another Sina Weibo user in Jiangsu province posted a link to the video with the comment, “The president of the United States is really an ordinary person, so close to the common people. To not vote for him is really difficult to defend!”
Many of these are not new sentiments, but rather regular fixtures in Obama-related discussions on Chinese social media, magnified by the rapidly approaching U.S. election. For example, Michelle Obama’s September speech to the Democratic National Convention was a huge hit on China’s Internet, in large part due to her personal discussion of the early, modest years of the Obama marriage and her ability to connect their personal struggles and upward path to a wider national narrative. Not so many years ago, such stories were told by the revolutionary leaders, such as Mao Zedong, who transformed China in the mid-20th century. Today, however, China’s leaders can’t make such populist connections, tightly bound to an all-but-official policy to keep their personal affairs shielded from the gossip-loving Chinese public.
Still, Obama’s populism -- at least as compared to whatever it is that China’s top leaders convey -- is only one component of his Chinese popularity. Another is a perceived charisma that also casts his Chinese counterparts in a less-than-favorable light. On Oct. 24, Liu Weibing, a veteran Chinese photojournalist with Xinhua, the state-owned newswire, posted to his personal blog some short reflections on the President Obama whom he has photographed several times. His comments on Obama’s character are in the mainstream of Chinese online opinion, especially in their belief that Obama has figured out a way to incite hope in Americans. Of the many things that Chinese people might say about their own leaders, few will suggest that the Politburo has the charisma to truly inspire Chinese citizens:
“When I was photographing Obama, I could feel the aura of youthfulness and vitality around him. Even we foreigners think he can do it! Americans advocate pragmatism, and they want a president who can bring them hope and benefits.”
Obama is not only viewed favorably by the Chinese when compared to their own leaders; he also has the upper-hand on his American opponent. Romney is widely viewed by Chinese netizens as unfair and anti-Chinese. But his image problems aren’t just a matter of policy. He also has the burden of biography: As the son of a wealthy, office-holding father, he superficially resembles the “princeling” leaders of China who achieve their offices via nepotism, connections and -- presumably -- corruption. Compared to that profile, Obama’s upwardly mobile biography is positively revolutionary, in Chinese terms. He is, in effect, the underdog against an establishment built to hold him down. Romney, inevitably, becomes the villain. “Relying on my gut, I prefer Obama,” writes a microblogger in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. “Because Romney’s aura reminds me of a crafty, behind-the-scenes boss in the movies.”
Of course, a mass Chinese preference for Barack Obama over Romney isn’t capable of influencing the U.S. elections any more than it is capable of influencing the selection of China’s top leaders -- whose identities will be revealed just days after Americans head to the polls. But at the very least, such discussion can serve as one more testament to Chinese frustration over the distance between the middle class and a government that claims to have its people’s interests at heart.
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org