As a student in China in 1992, there was no internet access, no international cable TV (after 1989, CNN was only available in five-star hotel rooms) and imported newspapers were days old and cost almost ten dollars. Friends at the U.S. consulate provided video cassettes of the presidential debates a few days after they occurred so we might have some idea what the candidates stood for.Mailing in my absentee ballot from China made the entire process feel very remote.
A few weeks later, I was standing on line for tickets at a train station at dawn, clutching a tiny short-wave radio listening to Voice of America report election results.The Chinese all around me who had been waiting in line with me hours before the station opened knew the US election was occurring, but it was an even more abstract concept to them. Educated elite and the top “America watchers” in China were anxious at the prospect of President George HW Bush, a former resident of Beijing, being deposed by a candidate who promised he would not, “coddle tyrants from Baghdad to Beijing.”

By the 2000 elections, globalization had taken root in China and for the first time, millions of Chinese followed the US election cycle closely, more freely expressed their opinions and increasingly recognized how intertwined US-Chinese political and economic relations had become. Looking back on eight years of US-China relations under President Clinton, most Chinese decided that even with many ups and downs, it was ending on a high. The campaign rhetoric of 1992 was incongruent, providing a lesson to Chinese about American politics.

By 2008, China surpassed the US in number of internet users, satellite dishes dot skylines in major cities and small villages, and growing numbers of Chinese are active consumers of international news and many follow the US election, fascinated by the personalities as much as the process.

Who do the Chinese want to win? It appears that Obama has captured the imagination of the many Chinese, and if they were permitted to vote, what limited polling data is available gives Obama a wide lead. One survey puts him ahead by 17%. The official English version of the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper reports that Obama is favored by a 75% margin in a poll conducted “by the US Embassy” on the China Daily web site.

Each night, as I return to my home in a battleground state, I am bombarded by mailings, fliers and TV ads. China is definitely not a prominent issue in either candidate’s mass media campaign, which is probably a good thing. The depth and complexity of the US-China relationship does not lend itself well to sound bites and fliers.

My next two blogs will take a brief look at what each of the candidates have said about China and what their respective China policy might look like should they be elected. That said, I, like many of my friends in China, have learned not to judge a candidate by what he says on the campaign trail, but by what he does once he sits in that leather chair in the Oval office.