America decides

US Presidential Election 2012

US example of democracy not lost on mainland internet commentators

As party congress goes on in secret, web users note how open and democratic US elections are

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2012, 4:15am

US presidential elections may have little impact on the lives of most mainlanders, but many watched this year's contest as closely as their counterparts across the Pacific.

For months, online microblogs and chat rooms have been brimming with talk about the elections. Most have focused less on the China-bashing by the US candidates than on how much the process differs from China's own leadership change.

In a quirk of the geopolitical calendar, the Communist Party ruling elite will gather behind closed doors to begin selecting a new generation of national leaders just one day after the last Americans cast their votes for Congress and the White House.

The coincidence has not been lost on the mainland's influential and growing internet community. Although government censors prevent internet users from saying much about the 18th national congress, many have used the US elections as a chance to show an interest in democracy.

Several have posted online polls asking internet users to "vote" for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.

"Haven't cast a vote during your life?" asked one survey. "Never mind, you can try this mock US election."

Such interest stands in stark contrast with discussion of the opaque and tightly scripted selection process in Beijing, which many are either unaware of or don't understand.

"I just feel that China's politics are not very related to me because all the policies and leadership appointments have been predetermined," said Leo Zou, a Beijing-based English teacher. "The citizens have no other alternative but to accept it.

"I can grasp the feeling of a democratic culture through the US elections, which I can never experience in China," Zou said.

The vacuum in the debate about Chinese politics was made all the more apparent by the extensive news stories, commentaries and speculation about the US elections carried by mainland news portals and the state-run media. Some state media figures even openly expressed their preferred candidates.

A commentary by Xinhua noted that it had become a tradition for US presidential election candidates to attack China, but said Sino-US ties would not be shaken by the election results because the candidates would seek to preserve bilateral ties after the campaigning was over.

The irony was not lost on some, like Ma Qiji , a former vice-president of CR-Nielsen, a Chinese joint venture by the market research firm Nielsen.

"Chinese media can only focus on and speculate about who will win the US elections, even though we are having our party congress and picking a new boss," Ma wrote on his Sina Weibo account.

Others were more sarcastic. "The happiest thing for Chinese citizens is that they get to see the American people casting votes to elect a president they like, while letting the party pick a leader for them," wrote one internet user.

Another commenter said: "The Americans still don't know who their president will be. We have known who our leader will be for years."

Seemingly aware of the online sentiment, state-run media and online platforms tried to play down or suppress commentary that appeared to use the US elections as an opportunity to agitate for political change. Ma's Sina Weibo post, for instance, was deleted shortly after it was put up.

Many mainland media also sought to highlight the less appealing aspects of democracy. Several television stations played up a viral video of a crying little girl from the advert-saturated battleground state of Colorado saying she was "tired of Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney".

CCTV reported that US campaign spending could reach US$6 billion - with each candidate spending about US$1 billion - making it the most expensive election ever. A commentary published by the People's Daily on Monday said the US presidential election was "burning money", but would not necessarily lead to change.

"The impact of money to American politics is expanding, which is a worrying sign," it said, adding that American politicians were biased towards the rich. "The middle class is sidelined and marginalised."

Some, like Zhan Jiang , a journalism professor from Beijing Foreign Studies University, saw the discussion of the US election as a sign China was becoming more open. Zhan, however, argued that China and the US had different needs and different political traditions.

"We cannot compare the two leadership transitions, and criticise China by referring to the US," he said.