While some Americans fret that the U.S. government shutdown is destroying the nation’s credibility abroad, the first thing you need to know about the Chinese reaction is that the crisis in Washington has barely registered.
That, at least, must be the conclusion drawn from the trending-topics list at Sina Weibo, China’s leading social-media site where -- as of late Thursday afternoon -- the news doesn’t register in the top 20. Rather, instead of worrying about the fiscal and political health of the superpower to which their government lends their money, Chinese microbloggers are instead focused on celebrities, iPads, and the sexy pole dancers hired to perform for the incoming freshman at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University.
This is a modest change from earlier in the week when the shutdown briefly reached as high as No. 2 on the list, according to Liz Carter at Foreign Policy. But interest was fleeting, its staying power low, and so -- while the Tsinghua pole dancers remained in the top twenty for much of the last week -- the shutdown has slid off the charts.
To some extent, the lack of interest suggests an implicit and perhaps surprising confidence that -- for all of its flaws - - the American system will manage through this crisis just fine. Indeed, amid the microblogged ambivalence, there’s a discernible thread suggesting that the shutdown actually demonstrates the strength and even superiority of the U.S. system, especially as compared to China’s. “This incident exhibits the flexibility of their system,” tweeted an anonymous Sina Weibo user on Thursday afternoon. “It is manifestation of their institutional confidence and demonstrates the highly developed nature of their democracy and rule of law.”
Few microbloggers are quite so high-minded and rare is the voice criticizing the U.S. for its gridlock. Instead, it’s far easier to find voices speculating on the shutdown’s potential impact on gold prices and financial markets.
Meanwhile, it isn’t just China’s easily distracted microbloggers who have failed to find much of interest in the shutdown. State-run media -- never shy about trumpeting alleged failings in the American political system -- have been unusually reserved and even reticent on the shutdown. People’s Daily, the official voice of the Chinese Communist Party, has taken no editorial position; the nationalist and wildly popular Global Times, never a friend of the U.S., has run a relatively informative Q&A explaining the origins of the standoff. Only Xinhua, the state-run newswire, has offered anything approximating an official government opinion, and it, too, was anodyne except for a brief passage expressing indignation on behalf of foreign sightseers. “As a matter of fact, foreigners have already suffered from the shutdown with more than 400 historical sites and scenic spots across the country closed to tourists.”
This latter point hints at what might, in fact, be the most important explanation for China’s ambivalence toward the shutdown: the country is on vacation, enjoying a national holiday, “golden week,” which started Tuesday (simultaneous with the shutdown). It is a time when China’s non-essential government services are mothballed, state-run newspaper editorialists are at the (proverbial) beach, and the country’s office drones have better ways to distract themselves than tweeting from work.
In other words, like anyone with limited vacation days, China’s opinion makers have prioritized what’s important during the holidays, and likely decided that Boehner v. Reid doesn’t make the list. That may change next week when everyone returns to work and finds that the debt-ceiling crisis -- and China’s stake in it -- looms ever closer. But until then, vacationing China appears to have its priorities straight.