U.S. election fascinates Chinese; some envy voters

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BEIJING — Where can a pop star score a hit by talking about the U.S. Electoral College for 33 minutes? In China, where Gao Xiaosong’s straightforward explanation of the system drew more than 1 million hits in four days.

Chinese have long been fascinated with U.S. presidential elections, but interest is particularly high this year because Americans are voting at the same time Beijing is going through its own political transition. A generation of Communist Party leaders will step down next week to make way for younger colleagues after a highly secretive selection process.

For many ordinary Chinese, comparisons are irresistible.

In a political cartoon circulated online, an American voter covers his ears as the candidates verbally attack each other on TV, while a Chinese man struggles to hear anything from the party congress, taking place behind closed doors.

“Every political system has its pros and cons, but I do think it will be great if I get to participate and get to make a decision after the candidates tell me what their platforms are for the next four years,” said Guo Xiaoqiao, a freelance worker in human resources.

Chinese delight in speculating whether President Barack Obama will fend off Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but they are more captivated by Americans’ ability to vote for their leader. Their own leaders are distant figures whom they have no way of replacing.

“The 18th Party Congress is a meeting for the party. We ordinary people can only watch it as an audience,” said Wang Xiaojian, a 21-year-old Peking University student. “The U.S. presidential election is a campaign that gets everyone involved.”

As Gao, a pop singer and musician known for his syrupy ballads, found out, many Chinese are even interested in the U.S. Electoral College, the often perplexing system in which the president is elected not by individual votes, but by the candidates’ state-by-state performance.

In a video from his online talk show that was posted on the popular video-sharing site Youku.com, Gao explained that the college is an attempt to balance the rights of states with the will of the majority.

“The opinion of the state is important; so is that of the people,” Gao said. He called America’s founding fathers the “greatest group of people in history.”

As a public performer used to censorship, Gao was careful not to draw direct comparisons to China’s system or its leaders. But even explaining America’s election system is more than what Chinese get from state media.

For decades, China’s public knowledge of U.S. elections was limited to state propaganda, which depicts the election as a money game controlled by Wall Street. Campaign finance scandals and vote fraud dominate coverage. Even if Chinese don’t wholly believe it, the repetitive line of state media has an impact on how they view U.S. politics.

“The coverage is to serve the internal propaganda needs but not explain how the U.S. election works,” said Chinese media critic Zhao Chu. “You hardly see any reports that can clearly explain how the U.S. election works.”

The less-censored Internet has changed the game, giving Chinese space to comment and exchange opinions. Videos of the presidential debates are available online.

Censorship on the U.S. election has mostly been in form of guidance from censors. State media have been told to play down reports on the election and keep them short and factual, according to editors at two media outlets.

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