Cheers, jeers and beers as Beijingers bypass China’s Great Firewall to tune in to US presidential debate

Expats, locals and political enthusiasts catch event live on Youtube at cafe in Chinese capital’s university district

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 September, 2016, 5:27pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 9:30am

As the first US presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton played out live on TV screens around the world, American expatriates and Chinese political observers joined the excitement at a cafe in Beijing.

At the cafe in the Chinese capital city’s Wudaokou neighbourhood, Democrats Abroad – a group of Clinton supporters – clapped and cheered whenever she had a good comeback for Trump and booed at Trump’s remarks that did not agree with them.

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The supporters broke out in applause when Clinton responded about her extensive experience after being questioned about her stamina for presidential office and jeered when Trump made a random reference to his 10-year-old while discussing cybersecurity in the United States.

They grinned at the candidates’ every “superficial” reference to China, exchanged glances when Trump accused Beijing of stealing Americans’ jobs and using the US as a “piggy bank” in his opening remarks, and grimaced as Clinton made mention of China while speaking about state-sponsored cyberattacks.

“It’s quite entertaining in a way,” said Swedish student Maja Wisenberger, who turned up at the cafe in Beijing’s northwest university district to catch the debate because “it would produce the next world leader”.

The event organisers were happy with the turnout – a full house of 40 people, mostly Americans but also political observers from other countries as well as local Beijing residents.

Although the debate was not broadcasted live by any official Chinese media or websites, the organisers managed to circumvent the “great firewall” and stream the event live from Youtube.

“Trump was bashing China whereas Clinton was saying we have to work with China. And with one of the most populous countries in the world, you have to work with them,” said Clarissa Coffey, a retired math teacher from New York City.

Coffey, a Clinton supporter, and her husband have registered to cast their votes from China.

Another American at the cafe, Chris Verrill, said votes from US citizens abroad mattered in the election.

“It’s important that we vote, because it’s not just our right to vote, it’s also our responsibility,” said Verrill, who has been operating a theatre in Beijing for a decade.

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Tyler Browse, a master’s student from New Jersey, said the debate would have a big impact on undecided voters’ perception of the candidates.

“The first [debate] is the most important because it’s the first time you see the two candidates on the same stage being compared directly with each other and being contrasted so immediately,” Browse said.

Clinton appeared more composed and demonstrated better leadership qualities compared with Trump, who appealed more to “anarchical or anarchistic” voters, Browse said.

But given how polarised American politics had become, the final result would be hard to predict just by studying the first presidential debate, those who attended the screening said.

“I know for sure [Trump] did not put in very much preparation for this debate; he might for the next one,” Coffey said.

Americans here in the city also took a keen interest in the event. Shaun Barnes, Chair of the Democrats Abroad in Hong Kong, said the debate had encapsulated the differences between the Democratic and Republican candidates.

“Clinton showed that she is a leader with a steady hand, backed up by decades of policy expertise, while Trump again revealed a lack of both self control and policy substance. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to have a robust debate when only one candidate is engaging with the issues.”

American Robert Kushner said Clinton had beaten Trump handily. “Hillary prepared well, intertwined facts and figures, offered substance and generally answered the questions. Whereas Trump had nothing more complex than a five-year-old to say during the entire debate,” said Kushner, the Managing Director of UT Brands Hong Kong.

Additional reporting by Jeffie Lam