The role model

Many Chinese believe that Barack Obama exemplifies the best of the West in culture, compassion and morals.
Constance Kong | Nov 8 2012 | comment  

In the lead up to the US presidential election most Chinese didn’t see a substantial difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. In both rhetoric and substance they were seen as much of a muchness. Sure, Mitt Romney had spooked Chinese punters when he promised to label China a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office. And Obama trumped that when he stopped a Chinese wind turbine manufacturer from establishing a wind farm in Oregon because of national security concerns over its proximity to a naval base.

But few Chinese paid too much attention to this anti-Chinese posturing. A common refrain here was “China is just a scapegoat of the US election. To win the election the candidates need an enemy to blame and attack for all that’s wrong in America; but once the election is over it will be back to business as usual.”

In a business sense Romney, despite his currency manipulator charge, was seen as more positively disposed to China. Obama’s claim that the Republican contender had exported American jobs to China was seen as a commitment to globalization and open markets.

Nonetheless, most Chinese seem happy with Obama’s win. At a superficial level they are drawn to the charisma of the man and have been blinded to specific policies. But, on closer questioning, some Chinese claim they are glad Obama had won because he “is kinder”, and that his policies concerning healthcare and taxation are more people-centric than Romney’s policies to protect the privileged.

Obama’s commitment to universal healthcare in America is seen as a positive in this nation of 1.3 billion people where healthcare costs have risen more than threefold since China was opened to the outside world in 1978. Indeed, medical costs have increased at such an accelerated rate that patients and their families have become very impatient, sometimes taking out their frustrations directly on doctors, nurses and hospitals.

Concerned by the prospect for social unrest presented by the parlous state of healthcare, the government increased health insurance coverage from one-third of the population to 95 percent last year. Nonetheless, patients suffering from serious illnesses have to struggle to pay for treatment from unaffordable specialists and drugs not covered by the new national healthcare scheme. Many Chinese would dearly like a healthcare champion like Obama.

Similarly the rising gap between rich and poor in China has alarmed many. There is therefore a tendency here to see Obama’s taxation policies that target the rich as favourable to establishing a balanced (or in Chinese parlance a “harmonious”) society based on the equitable distribution of wealth. They believe socialist China, which now has a large proportion of the world’s richest people while a huge number of the population, living in the nation’s hinterland, scrape by on two dollars a day, could learn something about wealth distribution from America’s president.

But many of the other issues of the election – gay marriage, gays in the military, abortion – were non-issues to Chinese. Abortion is already widespread throughout a nation where the government has had to make it illegal to find out the sex of unborn children in order to stop terminations of girls. The abortion debate in China – in so far as there is any discussion at all - is around forced abortions for families with more than one child.

Homosexuality is already becoming more acceptable in China, partly because of the cultural influence of the West and partly because the government is struggling with a sex imbalance that threatens social stability. The disproportionate number of boys to girls, an unintended consequence of the one child family policy, means that many men will not find wives. Options openly discussed in society as solutions to this problem include more tolerance for homosexuality and even a growing acceptance of polyandry (though this remains illegal).

Last month a gay couple held a high profile wedding ceremony in the southern province of Fujian which received massive media coverage and generated considerable discussion on social networking platforms in China. Most of the discussion supported the idea that gays should be permitted to marry and “raise families”.

The only concern Chinese express about a second Obama term was what that term would be like with a hostile Republican-dominated House of Representatives that could push the President to more confrontational positions vis-à-vis China. Many here are concerned that President Obama might veto future Chinese investments in the US or declare the nation a currency manipulator. They fear a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

And they fear a real, shooting war over China’s claims to disputed islands near its shores. In recent months China has been ratcheting up its rhetoric in disputes with neighbours from Japan to Korea to Vietnam and The Philippines. A real concern is that the US’s treaties with some of these nations, Japan in particular, could draw it into a conflict here. Many ordinary Chinese warn that America should stay out of local territorial disputes.

Like the Danish winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, Niels Bohr, I am reluctant to make predictions, especially about the future. It’s hard to say whether a second Obama term will increase trade and military tensions between the superpower and the superpower wannabe because of a hostile Congress. But it is safe to say that a second Obama term is likely to have a spillover effect on Chinese society, which is already accepting and adopting aspects of Western culture.

Expect China to follow in the slipstream of America legalizing gay marriage and legitimizing unconventional family living arrangements – if not in the next four years, certainly in the next decade – as it struggles with the social problems and unrest created by the one child family policy.

With America’s considerable contribution to the development of Western democracy, built on the vision of its Founding Fathers, it is a pity that the Chinese takeaway is likely to be the legacy of a second term of its most radical of presidents. The social changes likely to be wrought by Obama, and a more radical Supreme Court as current judges will likely be replaced by Obama-ites as they retire or die, is going to have far reaching implications beyond the shores of the Land of the Free.

The real power of the American president is the power he has to influence not only America but the rest of the world. That power is now in the wrong hands. Even Chinese supporters may come to rue the day they supported a Manchurian candidate for the White House. 

Constance Kong is a Shanghai-based business consultant.

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