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Candidates' reputation precedes them in China

Romney is the 'white- collar Republican,' Huckabee the ultraconservative, Obama the popular Democrat and Clinton the rights advocate.

January 27, 2008|Evan Osnos | Chicago Tribune

BEIJING — If everything you learned about U.S. presidential politics came from the Chinese news media, here are some things you would know:

Who is Mitt Romney? Luo-mu-ni, as his name is spelled phonetically in Mandarin, is the "white-collar Republican," who showcased his "brilliant management ability" by running the Salt Lake City Olympics "in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks."

How about Barack Obama? Au-ba-ma's "eloquence and splendid smile have captured the hearts of Americans" and won "supporters among young people, Libertarians and ethnic minorities."

And Mike Huckabee? He-ka-bi is the one with the "extremely conservative political stance" who "played bass guitar and spoke humorously, even about subjects as serious as WMD, and people grew fond of him."

On the other side of the planet from the U.S. campaign, China is forming its own opinions of those who might be president -- or, as Beijing sees it, managing the other side of the world's most important trade and foreign policy relationship.

And for China, which is increasingly inclined to define global issues on its own terms -- even if U.S. pollsters are more interested in religious beliefs, healthcare and the war in Iraq -- no issue looms larger than trade.

In a nation where citizens receive most of their political information from a short list of state-run or state-approved news outlets, early impressions can harden into rigid reputations that would follow the winner into the White House.

Take, for example, Obama's stumble into the minefield of Chinese toys: When the Illinois senator suggested to a table of New Hampshire voters shortly before Christmas that he might "stop all imports of these toys from China" to prevent unsafe toys from reaching U.S. shelves, the sound bite raced across the Pacific.

Obama later scaled back the idea: "Now don't get me wrong, as president I will work with China to keep harmful toys off our shelves" -- but not before the editorial page of the state-run China Daily had fulminated about "an insensible proposal." "It is hardly surprising when this country is victimized in the vote-wooing rhetoric of American politicians in the run-up to presidential elections," it said.

Obama's toy comments have helped shape early questions in China about how he would handle trade tensions.

"Mr. Obama, at least initially, might be a little harder to deal with as president because he is not familiar with China, and the Chinese are not familiar with him," said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at People's University in Beijing.

By contrast, Hillary Clinton (Xi-la-li to Chinese readers) is the only candidate known by her first name, thanks to her tenure as first lady. Her memoir, "Living History," sold well in China when it was released in 2003, even after Clinton said she was "amazed and outraged" that the Chinese publisher had removed politically sensitive passages about the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square and other issues.

But leaders and scholars in Beijing have never forgotten Clinton's 1995 speech at the U.N.-organized Fourth World Conference on Women, which was held on the outskirts of the capital.

At the time, Beijing was under fire for preventing activists from attending and for denying delegate visas to exiles from Tibet and leaders from Taiwan. Drawing a harder line on human rights than other U.S. officials in China, the then-first lady said: "Freedom means the right of people to assemble, organize and debate openly."

When the Chinese discuss Clinton, "that's the first thing people think of," said Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Beijing's Qinghua University.

In general, Chinese analysts see Democrats as tougher on trade and human rights than Republicans. Although Romney earns praise in this Olympic-crazed country for his work on the Salt Lake City Games, the Republican hopefuls have made little impression here.

"The Chinese have much less familiarity with the Republican candidates -- even among scholars," Shi said, "because some Republicans launched their campaign later than the Democrats, and all of the Republicans are older and male, so it's less interesting."

Zhang Guojun, a 28-year-old software engineer, concurs. "I don't know much about the Republican candidates," he said. "They are not that famous.

"Bush has made a mess in office," Zhang said. "America has the sub-prime mortgage crisis, recession looks unavoidable, the situation in Iran and Iraq is still not clear -- who knows how much money will be still put into it. I think it will be better to have a black president. That's the so-called American dream."

The prospect of a first female president for America might inspire U.S. voters, but in China, where high-ranking female officials are rare, the idea collides with traditional attitudes that seem out of step with such a fast-changing country.

"As a woman, my heart tells me that it's good to have a female leader, so that our pursuit of power and our dreams could be realized through Hillary," said Yuan Jiangming, a 29-year-old college lecturer on film and culture. "But in terms of rationality, women are less equipped to be national leaders."

In fact, any Chinese middle-schooler will inform you that women in power have meant trouble for China. History textbooks are replete with stories of Empress Lu Hou in the 2nd century BC, the first female Emperor Wu Zetian in the 7th century AD, not to mention the Empress Dowager Cixi in the 19th century. Each is blamed for some manner of treachery or despotism.

Those lessons fuel a subtle prejudice that has persisted despite China's social changes, Yan said.

"Everyone believes that it will be very difficult to deal with a female president," he said.

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