BEIJING — The Americans are doing it again, mystifying the masses here with their weird, weird presidential elections.
To the Chinese, who are spared by the one-party communist system such complications as an electoral college and party caucuses, the spectacle unfolding in the United States is not a very tempting advertisement for democracy.
"A lot of people think Western-style democracy is a joke -- it's more like a pop idol contest or a beauty pageant," said Pan Xiaoli, an anchorwoman for International Channel Shanghai, an English-language TV station. "I think the Chinese watch with a sense of inherent superiority, saying, 'This is not the way for us.' "
Yet if the Chinese think the U.S. presidential campaign is chaotic and unseemly, there is good reason. Chinese coverage has not exactly highlighted the more flattering aspects of the American political process.
A photo that dominated the front page of Thursday's China Daily showed riot police wrestling a protester to the ground at the Republican National Convention. The headline "sex scandal" appeared in several newspapers on stories about the pregnancy of the 17-year-old daughter of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Newspapers in Shanghai and Taiwan ran a nude photo purportedly of Palin that turned out to be a hoax.
But many Chinese appear to be less squeamish about sex than money. Though Beijing just spent $42 billion to stage the Olympics, the lavishness of the Republican and Democratic conventions struck observers here as wasteful.
"Some people think it is quite crazy spending so much money at a time that the economy is not in good shape. They think there must be a more efficient way of having an election," said Ding Xinghai, president of the Shanghai Institute of American Studies.
Negative depictions of American politics were long a staple of Chinese propaganda. Shen Dingli, a professor of American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, remembers hearing as a student in the 1970s a reading of a Mark Twain parody of the electoral process called "Running for Governor."
"People think the capitalist way of campaigning is all about making up fake stories to slander your opponent, that it's just a political show," Shen said.
Another reason for the negativity is that many Chinese don't like either candidate.
Perhaps from nostalgia for her husband, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had been the clear favorite here.
Sen. Barack Obama has alienated some Chinese by criticizing Chinese-made products. And Sen. John McCain infuriated many more by meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader who is reviled by the Chinese government.
"For ordinary Chinese observers, it is hard for them to differentiate between the platforms or understand the anxieties. They've seen it mostly as a competition between a woman, a black man and an old man," said Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, speaking at a seminar of journalists this week in Seoul.
"American election topics like abortion and homosexual marriage are alien to Chinese," he added.
More alien than the issues is the process itself. The electoral college, the primaries, the convention delegates and the arcane disputes over butterfly ballots are utterly baffling.
Many people here have stopped following the U.S. campaign not because they are uninterested, but simply because they can't keep track of it all.
Under the Chinese system, the National People's Congress votes to approve the presidential candidate selected by the Communist Party.
"Here in China, once somebody is chosen, he becomes president and that's it," said He Siyuan, 19, a student.
But not all agree.
"I wish we had some of those complications," said a 36-year-old man from Beijing, who did not wish to give his name.
"Maybe it is not so efficient, but the president is chosen by the people."