In China, Fascination With Obama's Skin Color

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

BEIJING, June 16 -- America may be discussing whether Barack Obama is tough enough to field a 3 a.m. phone call, but for the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper, the real issue is his race.

"Obama's skin color is the biggest focal point of this year's U.S. election," said the opening line in a front-page editorial in the overseas edition of Monday's People's Daily newspaper.

The editorial, while perhaps stark in its analysis, gave voice to a fascination among many Chinese at the sight of a black man running for president in the world's most powerful nation. The U.S. campaign, and Obama's victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton, have provided them with a noticeable contrast to China's own situation, where Han Chinese eclipse minorities by their overwhelming majority and show no sign of relinquishing their hold on the levers of power.

The race issue has become particularly sensitive here in recent months, with the Public Security Bureau accusing Muslim Uighur separatists in the Xinjiang region of plotting terrorist attacks in Beijing, and Tibetans rioting against Han Chinese rule in Lhasa, the Tibetan regional capital, and several other Tibetan-inhabited areas.

The editorial sought to explain that Obama's breakthrough should not be understood as a demonstration that race relations have crossed a threshold in the United States that China has yet to approach. Obama, it said, became the Democratic Party's presumptive presidential nominee because, as a Harvard lawyer, he shares the same "background" as others in the U.S. elite.

"Obama won precisely because he did not emphasize his racial characteristics," the writer said. "He even made a clean break with radical black people. Therefore it can be said Obama won because of his skin color and not because of his skin color. His skin color made him different but his U.S. background made him the same.

"Obama is a graduate from a first-class university," the editorial continued. "He is a symbol of assimilation rather than a representative of different races coming together. Obama did not break the superiority complex of white people. On the contrary, his appearance strengthened the superiority complex of white people."

The editorial was signed by Ding Gang, a name frequently assigned to important analyses in a publication that plays the role of party bulletin board. Chinese journalists said they believe it is a pen name used by senior editors or other party propaganda officials conveying an official point of view.

The 68 million members of China's Communist Party, at least those who take their responsibilities seriously, normally would be expected to take their cues from such an editorial and repeat its key phrases in speeches and official conversations around the country. But it ran only in the overseas edition, which projects China's opinions abroad, and thus will not be seen by most of China's 1.3 billion people.

The Chinese government has grown comfortable over the last eight years in its relations with the Bush administration, whose leader belongs to what the People's Daily editorial called "the core of U.S. mainstream society, the white Protestant with Anglo-Saxon blood." More concretely, the administration's emphasis on improving ties as a way to promote business and trade has fit nicely with the party's goal of raising the Chinese people's living standards by pumping out exports.

Democratic leaders, on the other hand, have been more inclined to point to the loss of U.S. jobs as assembly-line work increasingly shifts from U.S. to Chinese factories. Calls for protectionist measures against China have come principally from Democratic members of Congress and are opposed by the Bush administration, much to the satisfaction of Chinese officials.

In addition, both Obama and Clinton called on President Bush to boycott the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Beijing in August. Again to the joy of Chinese officials, Bush has said he will attend the Beijing Games, but without pinning himself down specifically regarding the opening ceremony.

The government-controlled Chinese press, however, did not highlight debates over protectionist issues when they emerged in the Democratic primary campaign. Moreover, a group of U.S. China scholars who recently had a round of interviews with Chinese officials said they noticed little sign of trepidation at the idea that the next president might be a Democrat perhaps more inclined to listen to the protectionist voices in Congress.

"Generally speaking, the government doesn't care who wins the election, since policy toward China will not show a big difference no matter which party wins," said Li Datong, an editor who was fired for publishing a historical analysis that did not follow the party's approved line. "It is impossible that the next president will make a big change in China policy."

Officially, the Chinese government has abstained from comment on the U.S. voting, following the standard practice here of avoiding interference in the internal affairs of other nations. But the editorial touched on a theme that has frequently been expressed by ordinary Chinese ever since it became clear Obama would be the Democratic nominee: wonder at the fact that a man from a racial minority could be within reach of occupying the White House.

"Of course, the color of Obama's skin is a very interesting part of the U.S. presidential election, although it is still unclear what this means for the U.S. people," Li said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company