When President Obama delivered some self-deprecating stand-up comedy at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner on Saturday, he was clearly speaking to fellow Americans. He joked about U.S. media personalities and U.S. pop culture. He made offhand references to minor political controversies and network television ratings.
It was not the kind of speech that you, or Obama himself, would likely expect to become a hit in China. But, according to the Wall Street Journal's Josh Chin, that's exactly what has happened, with the speech attracting wide and largely positive attention on the Chinese Web. A video of the speech, appended with Chinese subtitles, has attracted an astounding 25 million views on the Web site Youku.
For comparison, the most-viewed version that I could find on YouTube, which serves the entire world, so far has only about 1.8 million views.
So, why is a video of the American president making jokes so wildly popular in far-away China? Chin explains that, based on the Web discussion, Chinese viewers seem to be delighted by the idea of a senior leader laughing, talking candidly and poking fun at his own weaknesses and failures -- exactly the sort of thing their own leaders would never do in public.
“The president is amazingly eloquent,” one Chinese Web user wrote, according to Chin's translation. “When will Chinese leaders have this level of humor, intelligence and confidence?!!!” Another wrote: "This is what democracy looks like. This is the kind of leader it takes to win people’s hearts.”
It's a facet of democracy we often take for granted here in America -- the personal accessibility of leaders and the idea, assumed here, that all citizens stand on an equal level.
This is not the first American political video to go viral in China: The presidential election, from the debates to the conventions, were closely followed there. But the attention isn't only about adoration of and envy for the American political system, which is populist and direct in a way that China's is assiduously not. It's also a reminder of the growing similarities between the American and Chinese middle classes, which are increasingly consumed with the same issues of equality, prosperity, transparency, trust in institutions and political leadership in a time of change.