Issue: 2009: Vol. 8, No. 2

International Relations Obama Gets Good Reviews in China

Article Author(s)

Mary Lewis Grow

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Mary Lewis Grow has been visiting China for extended stays since 1990. She runs a non-profit in Northfield 

Rebecca Dong

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MN. Rebecca Dong has worked with media companies in China since 2002, including National Geographic, and is based in Beijing. 
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International Relations Obama Gets Good Reviews in ChinaViews in China about America’s new president range from the superficial (“He’s so handsome!”) to the thoughtful (“He’s extremely smart but we worry that his policies may not help China”). While there is no unanimity in the reasons Chinese give for approving of the Americans’ choice in the 2008 election, there does seem to be an almost uniform lack of criticism of Barack Obama here that extends, often, to outright enthusiasm.

During the spring, 2009, several young women, graduate students at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, spoke effusively when the subject of Barack Obama was introduced. One, Yao Li, said, “He seems confident and competent to lead the U.S., and the reason is that he smiles a lot.” Another, Sarula, said, “He is a peace-lover. [During the campaign] he said [that] if elected president, he would withdraw the majority of the armed forces [in Iraq] as soon as possible. It would be different from the policy of the Bush administration. He is making efforts to [have] his people live in a comfortable, peaceful environment.”

The same approval enjoyed by Obama in China appears to be wide-spread in other parts of Asia as well. Americans living in Djarkata report the near-ecstasy expressed by Indonesians following Obama’s election. Travelers to a remote part of Myanmar encountered a street vendor, crouched on the ground in front of his cheap wares. Sensing the nationality of the visitors, the vendor looked up, flashed them a huge smile and, giving them a thumbs-up, said simply, “Obama!”Tellingly, two cab drivers north of Bangkok had very different takes on Obama’s election. One saw it for what it told him about the United States; one saw it in personal terms that he applied to his own circumstances. The first driver said that he was happy for the United States and what the election of a black man represented in terms of their history. The other said that Obama’s election demonstrated that, with hard work, anything is possible. Before Obama’s election, he might not have believed that his daughter would be able to overcome her background to make notable achievements. But with Obama’s win, he said, he was able to urge his daughter to study hard in school becaU.S.e now he had dramatic evidence that individuals can rise above their circumstances and achieve anything and everything.

Their friend, Liu Xin, liked the fact that Obama had succeeded on his own merit. “U.S. presidents [often] come from a rich family, like Kennedy and George W. Bush,” she said. “Often, they get help from their families when they begin their political careers. When they participate in a presidential campaign, their families support them, not only with money but also influence. I learned that Obama was born into a very ordinary family. His father divorced his mother when Obama was very young. Obama once lived a very difficult life. It can be said that he started from scratch…He strived to succeed bit by bit. In 2008, he participated in the presidential campaign [ran for president]. Depending on his wonderful speeches and his smile, he succeeded at last. During his whole career, he could not get any support from his family. All that he could depend on was himself. He started from the grassroots but ended as president. His story is a good example of the American Dream.”

Yao Yao referenced her friend’s view in her own reply:

“I think he is a very attractive man, with distinctive qualities. During the presidential campaign, he made a lot of amazing promises to the American people. We are looking forward to seeing how he will keep his promises in such a complicated and difficult international situation. The financial crisis is striking the whole world and Iraq is still not peaceful.

“My friend said that what Obama achieved depended on his own ability. I agree that he achieved a lot without [the benefit of] a prominent family background. We admire him for this. In China if you want to be successful, you must rely on relationships and networks. However, Obama cannot do without the support of the Democratic Party and his colleagues. You know, that’s politics!”

A young man handing out flyers for his travel agency at the gate of the same university said that he thinks “Obama is very humorous.” When asked if he thought that Obama would be good for the relationship between China and the United States, the young man hesitated, uncertain about whether Obama would act in China’s interests. When asked why he harbored such fears, he said that he thought most leaders did what was best for their own country, and Obama would not be unique if he looked to U.S. interests first.

A Muslim restaurant owner in his forties gave verbal applause to Obama’s stance on Guantanamo. Obama, he believes, is likely to release most detainees. He also expressed pleasure at Obama’s conciliatory outreach to the Muslim world.

A shopkeeper in Dashenze, the cutting-edge arts neighborhood in the northeastern part of Beijing, smiled when asked for her views about the new American president: “He’s very strong,” she said, “and he will have to be if he is to help lead the United States out of its current crises.”

A wide sampling of Beijing cab drivers offered a range of quick impressions: “Obama bi Bush hao.” (“Obama is better than Bush.”) Why? “Because he doesn’t/didn’t like the war in Iraq.” Although “da Bush” (George Herbert Walker Bush) is always compared favorably with his son, “xiao Bush,” at least one cab driver said that even “da Bush” liked war [the first Gulf War] too much. Several drivers gave a two-word answer: “Ting hao,” “Very good,” but were unable to say why they liked the new American president, some adding that they didn’t really know enough yet about Obama to have an informed opinion.

One young Beijing cabbie was surprised to learn that Bush was no longer president, and, in fact, had left office three months earlier!

In Shanghai, a cab driver twisted around in his seat to be sure that his American passenger had understood his very positive opinion of Barack Obama. “I like him very much,” he said, with strong emphasis. “He has a good heart.”

Opinion in Shanxi Province differed little from that in the capital, even though opportunities for conversation with foreigners and exposure to the western press in Shanxi are extremely rare. The faces of a retired middle-school principal and his wife lit up when asked about America’s new president. They were very happy when Obama was elected, they said. A young teacher of English and friend of the retired couple concurred, though none of the three could give issue-based reasons for their favorable impressions.

A rare criticism of Obama was expressed by a salesman in a small store in Pingyao, an old city in Shanxi famed for its well-preserved walls and watch towers and its former status during the Ming and Qing dynasties as the banking center of China. “He’s too smooth by half,” he replied when asked if he had an opinion of America’s new president. Although unable to elaborate on this impression, and in spite of his store’s prominent display of the iconic Shepherd Fairey portrait of Obama on a large package of matches (on sale in dubious company with other match boxes whose covers featured Hitler, Stalin, Che Guevara, and Mao), the young man’s negative view was far from tentative.

Andrew Kaiser, a young American who has lived and worked for twelve years in Taiyuan, the provincial capital of Shanxi Province, reported seeing an off-the-beaten-track shop named “Obama” even though its wares had no apparent connection to the new U.S. president. The naming of the store was, in Kaiser’s view, most likely a marketing decision determined by Obama’s widespread popularity.

Of three representatives of the Chinese media who offered their impressions of President Obama, two spoke very approvingly of him, but one echoed the reservations of the shopkeeper in Pingyao. Tao Libao, a former employee of CCTV, now in his thirties and running his own TV production company, said, “When Obama talks in everyday life, he still talks as [if] making a speech to the public. I [feel] he might not know or be willing to expose his true feelings. So I feel he’s not sincere, or he doesn’t know what to do with the topic he’s talking about.”

The slightly older vice-president of a Shanghai media group offered a much more positive take on the new U.S. president. Obama’s energy, he believes, will kindle a corresponding energy in his compatriots, particularly among younger and middle-aged Americans. Younger people are more likely to be open to the kind of change that Obama represents and more willing to take a chance on going in new directions, said the Shanghai media executive. He expressed optimism about Obama’s relationship with China and said that most Chinese are ready and willing to see him as a friend.

Forty-two-year-old film producer and former university professor Wang Guangli spoke of the youth, vigor, and confidence he sees in Obama, and he wishes the new president success. If Obama is not successful in addressing the huge problems that face the United States, Wang Guangli will not see his failure as a lack of competence but rather as a reflection of the enormous problems he is dealing with. And, he said, many of the Americans’ difficulties are world issues as well.

Wang Guangli draws on his film and media background to assess Obama’s star power, which he believes Obama to have in abundance – more than many movie stars. While Obama’s charisma may cause some people to judge him as superficial, notes Wang Guangli, it may give him a greater platform for success. So far, he says, Obama has not disappointed expectations. Other charismatic presidents have turned out to be successful, he adds, citing Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, among others.

Obama’s youth may be one of his biggest assets, according to the film-maker. Young people are willing to learn, he says. They are flexible in dealing with conflict, and young leadership is capable of dealing with old problems in new ways.

With access to many media sources, Wang Guangli has had frequent opportunities to observe Obama on television. In fact, he notes, he has taken for his own use one of Obama’s most popular slogans: “Yes, we can!”

He Xiangmin, an economist and university administrator currently serving as Vice President and Executive Director of the China Association for International Education, spoke thoughtfully about Obama and American politics. Chinese believe, he said, that Democrats are better for their country during hard economic times, but they worry because Democrats often are more confrontational with China over issues of human rights and protectionism. Traditionally, he said, it usually takes two to three years for a new Democratic administration to adjust its relationship with China. But he is hopeful that Obama’s learning curve will be shorter since, unlike Bush, who tried to tell the rest of the world what [the U.S. thought] they should be doing, Obama seems more inclined to work collaboratively and listen to others. He believes that Obama is less likely to use war as an instrument of foreign policy and thinks there is greater world-wide trust that he would use war only as a last resort.

He Xiangmin is relieved that Obama seems to have softened his protectionist stance, which makes China more amenable to helping the U.S. with its trade imbalance issues. China’s agreement to use some of its excess foreign reserves to purchase $10 billion worth of American goods will work to both China’s and the U.S.’s benefit, since it helps reduce China’s dollar reserves and will help stimulate the U.S. economy. Even though the recent agreement works to the benefit of both countries, He Xiangmin believes that it also is a reflection of trust and goodwill towards Barack Obama and recognition of his desire to work well with China.

“While Bush said, in effect, ‘Do as we say, not as we do,’ Obama shows greater respect for other people and other cultures,” says He.

China knows, says He Xiangmin, that unless the U.S. recovers, there will be no global economic recovery, so its policies will reflect a desire for the economies of both countries to be strong. But, he added, China wants – and should have – a bigger voice in World Bank and IMF policy formation.

Another Chinese economist, a prominent and influential policy advisor, Zhang Jianye (not his real name) made different points when talking about Obama and his administration’s relationship with China. Contrary to many of his friends who said that the United States would never elect a black man as president, this economist predicted Obama’s win, saying that he believed that the United States had already changed enough to break the racial barrier in its electoral politics. And he knew, he said, that Americans very much wanted a change from the Bush years.

In general, he said, Chinese have a very favorable impression of Obama, in spite of their gratitude to George W. Bush for honoring his commitment to come to the Beijing Olympics [and, although he didn’t mention it, GWB benefited from the affectionate memories Chinese have of the first President Bush, who served as first U.S. envoy to China, though unofficially, after the breakthrough in U.S.-China relations].

Much like his fellow-economist, He Xiangmin, Mr. Zhang noted that new American administrations often start out by picking a fight with China. That Obama did not start off this way has pleased China, the South China Sea incident notwithstanding. He spoke admiringly of the restraint demonstrated by both sides during and after that incident and said that Obama’s sending Secretary of State Clinton to China so early in his administration was a positive sign.

Mr. Zhang believes that the make-or-break issues between the U.S. and China will be economic, not military. He acknowledged China’s complicity in amassing so much U.S. debt, saying that just as an individual should not continue lending to a friend who is already deeply in debt, China contributed to the problem by continuing to lend to the U.S. long after it should have been apparent that the U.S. was spending far more than it was saving and would have trouble repaying its loans.

He expressed particular concern about the issue of whether the U.S. repays China in inflated dollars or amounts that equal, in real value, the amount of China’s loans. He believes that the U.S. is morally obligated to guarantee that its repayments will not erode the real value of China’s foreign exchange reserves.

“Don’t create China as an enemy,” he counsels. China does not have a history of territorial expansionism, he argues, even in the past when its naval fleet dwarfed those of any other country in the world. And China does not want to see the hegemony of the dollar changed, though they may not like it. But they do not propose to change it.

As Obama goes forward, Mr. Zhang observed, he may need seasoned and experienced economic hands such as Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, but he also should reach out to more new people who perhaps have not been as deeply enmeshed in the financial structures and institutions that have failed so badly.

It is important for both China and the U.S. that our new president succeed. Although Obama’s foreign policy is still unfolding, Mr. Zhang believes that he has made a good beginning in reaching out to other countrie .

Ending on a note of hope, he added, “Americans are adaptable and learn from their mistakes.”