- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2008

BEIJING | The history-making U.S. presidential campaign is sparking an unusual debate in China about the relative merits of democracy versus one-party rule.

According to a recent survey, more than a third of Chinese are paying close attention to the contest between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain.

Many Chinese have become frustrated by the complicated and drawn-out nature of the process, while others have compared the debates to reality television singing contests — one form of democracy that is thriving in China.

The survey revealed disbelief at the amount of money spent on campaigning in a country mired in an economic crisis that has affected the entire world, but also admiration for the U.S. democratic system at work.

“China should adopt the U.S. election system where the people elect the president directly. China will take this path in the future,” said a 57-year-old fortuneteller who gave only his last name, Xu.

Liu Yang, 14, called the U.S. process “very good” and compared it to elections at her school.

“It’s like the way we elect our class president,” she said. “It’s much easier for everyone to obey the rules” when following someone chosen by the majority.

Reacting to the flurry of interest in the U.S. campaign, the state-run Xinhua news agency has warned Chinese that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the world.

“Western democracy cannot cure all the diseases,” one Xinhua commentary read. “In the courts in the U.S., the right to abortion and the issue of gay marriage is always controversial and has caused a lot of arguments.

“So we can see that even though we admire Western democracy, it still has a lot of problems and reminds us of American deficiencies.”

This kind of article shows that the Chinese government is more defensive now when it comes to democracy, said Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“We used to say the U.S. elections were a bourgeois thing, but now we don’t say that anymore because the people’s level has increased and we can no longer just criticize,” he said.

“Now we say the elections are too expensive, they are too long. This is reflective of pressure from the public. We imply that even if they are good, they are not good for China.”

Many affluent Chinese rank political freedom a distant second to individual prosperity, a line of thought that explains the Chinese government’s concern at the prospect of the country’s annual growth rate dipping below 8 percent.

Some educated Chinese say the people are not capable of making the right choices for the country.

“In my opinion, the leaders know better,” said Xiu Li, 23, a recent university graduate. “They can choose what’s best for us.”

But admiration for the U.S. system is clearly surging and appears to be the product of a global Obama phenomenon.

Mr. Obama is the clear favorite among Chinese, despite the fact that he is more persistent than Mr. McCain in criticizing their country’s trade and human rights policies.

A recent Horizon Research survey of close to 3,000 people in seven Chinese cities and towns found that of the 35.5 percent of Chinese who “pay close attention” to the U.S. elections, Mr. Obama’s supporters exceed those of Mr. McCain by 17.8 percent.

Online polls reveal even larger approval ratings for the Democrat. A survey conducted on the English-language China Daily’s Web site showed that 75 percent of respondents supported Mr. Obama.

While small-scale polls cannot accurately gauge the opinions of a population of 1.3 billion, the results are bolstered by the chatter on the street and impassioned debate on online forums.

When discussing Mr Obama’s attributes, university graduate Li litters her comments with words such as “youth,” “energy” and “fashion,” terms that contrast with China’s staid Communist Party leaders.

“His new attitude … is different from the others,” she said. “We hope to see a new, different America.”

Much of the online conversation has centered on Mr. Obama’s race. Many have expressed surprise and fascination at the prospect of a black American president.

“Obama is half black, his mother is white, so he represents the American dream. The American people’s racial prejudices are not as strong as those of Chinese people,” one person wrote on the popular Internet forum Tianya.

Fudan University’s Mr. Shen said Chinese officials have carefully controlled the official media’s election coverage to avoid compromising governmental neutrality.

State-run newspapers have focused on objective news rather than explicit endorsements of either candidate, he said.

Mr. Obama, however, has had a far higher public profile in China throughout the campaign.

For the month of April, for example, China’s most popular Internet search engine, Baidu, featured a cartoon illustration of Mr. Obama above its logo as part of its “Homepage Heroes” series. The caption read: “Black kid Obama: anything is possible!” and was followed by a series of articles about Mr. Obama’s background and lifestyle.

Meanwhile, coverage of Mr. McCain has failed to mention details likely to resonate with the Chinese public, Mr. Shen said.

“Little has been said about McCain’s war heroics and how he refused to be traded as a prisoner of war. The media hasn’t really spoken of his heroism because he supported the war on Iraq. This is the culture of the media here - it cannot support the war on Iraq,” he said.

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