OBAMA-MANIA IS gripping much of the world, and there are high hopes that an Obama presidency will restore faith in the American dream. In China, that dream was crushed by tanks in Tiananmen Square nearly two decades ago. Can Obama bring it back?
What we can say here in Beijing is that Obama’s victory hasn’t killed off the dream. As one graduate student in my department put it shortly before the election, “If Obama loses this game, I don’t know what I will say about democracy.” He was thrilled with Obama’s victory, drawing the implication that the change of guard shows “the importance of democracy.” He then went on to say, “I hope someday China can have this sort of election too.”
But most of my students—who can be highly politicized on other occasions—seem surprisingly indifferent to Obama’s victory. There are few debates about American politics on open Web sites. People seem more excited about talks between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese leaders. Yes, the U.S. election results were broadcast on Chinese state TV without any obvious bias—just as they were four years ago—but that just means the regime has less to fear from the American example.
In 2004, the invasion of Iraq was still fresh on people’s minds throughout China, and the U.S. was associated with hegemonic aspirations rather than democratic ideals. Today, the financial meltdown has rehabilitated Marxist critiques of capitalism in China and the “superstructural” struggles over political leadership do not engage the passions.
Perhaps Communist propaganda shapes such attitudes? But that can’t be the whole story, since it didn’t work 20 years ago. Moreover, the international news is relatively balanced, without the obvious bias of national news that glorifies the achievements of state leaders and suppresses the reporting of bad news.
So why aren’t Chinese students and intellectuals gripped by Obama-mania to the same extent as their counterparts abroad? One key factor is that relations between China and the U.S. have been good since the terrorist attacks of September 11, when the Bush administration turned its attention away from China and toward other perceived threats. Hence, there is less passion for an alternative approach to U.S. policy in China. What Obama said about China policy during his campaign—more protectionism, attacks on the Chinese government for “manipulating” its currency—could make things worse for China, and his views regarding North Korea and Taiwan do not point to any substantial improvements over current American foreign policy.
Nor does Obama’s Hollywood-like story of the historically oppressed minority group member who makes it to the top via talent and luck resonate much in China. What would be the equivalent? A Tibetan who rises to the top of the Chinese Communist Party? It doesn’t sound very inspiring.
Contrary to popular reports, racist attitudes are not influential among the educated classes in China. No doubt a Chinese-American political leader in the U.S. would attract more interest, but such identifications are not unique to the Chinese and do not translate into racist attitudes towards others.
Another factor that dims Obama-mania is that China is more confident in its own ways and less likely to look abroad for inspiration. China will be hard hit by the financial meltdown—a local trade association in Southern Guangdong estimates that 9,000 of the 45,000 factories will be closed by January—but the lesson drawn is that China needs to reduce dependence on exports and develop its own internal market with capital controls and tightly regulated markets.
Politically, there is growing aversion to Western-style democracy on the grounds that it leads to political instability and economic inefficiency. Democracy is widely practiced at local levels in China, but few call for national-level elections. Many intellectuals are turning to China’s own traditions for inspiration, such as Jiang Qing’s proposal for meritocratic selection of leaders by free and fair competitive examinations.
What can Obama do to reverse such perceptions? He has been dealt an awful set of cards, and perhaps the best he can do is manage the peaceful decline of American power while respecting economic and political alternatives. But what if he shows that democracy can produce truly great leaders—sage kings, in Confucian terms—hence proving to the rest of the world that democracy works best? For that to happen, Obama would need to combat populism and narrow interest-group pressures to show that he can enact policies that favor the rest of the world.
Put differently, Obama needs to pull off a near-miracle: He needs to deal with global warming; restore the American economy to health and promote concern for poor countries in international trade; implement the proposal by former American Secretaries of State and Defense for a world free of nuclear weapons; bring home U.S. troops from Iraq without leaving a violent mess behind; and defuse tensions in the rest of the world. Then, perhaps, the U.S. political system will once again inspire the large majority of Chinese students, intellectuals, and reform-minded members of the Communist Party.
Daniel A. Bell is professor of political theory at Tsinghua University. His latest book is China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society (Princeton University Press, 2008).