The cover of a popular magazine on newsstands across China this week depicts presidential candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush standing back to back in front of an American flag. Underneath the image, a bold headline asks, "Who Will Be the Last Liar Standing?"

This isn't a standard Communist Party attack on the U.S. political system. Instead, a Chinese journalist with reformist credentials who lives in New York describes in a thoughtful essay his disappointment with U.S. politics. "This country's politics are totally different than the esteemed American political tradition I once studied in books," writes Lian Qingchuan, the former editor of a newspaper shut down by party authorities last year for publishing a call for political reform in China. "What's scary about the Bush administration is that it doesn't hesitate to trump up intelligence, abuse prisoners, limit citizens' freedoms and use unilateral actions to achieve its own political goals. . . . For different political goals, the Kerry and Edwards camp is using the same tactics."

The article is one example of the complex ways in which Chinese are reacting to the U.S. presidential race, which is getting unprecedented attention in China's state-controlled media. The campaign is a hot topic in newspapers and Internet chat rooms, and all four presidential and vice-presidential debates have been broadcast on national television.

Popular opinion appears to be running against Bush, whom many Chinese view as a reckless cowboy with little regard for other countries or international institutions. Internet polls and conversations suggest that most people believe Kerry would almost certainly be an improvement. But Bush does appear to enjoy support among two groups that rarely agree on much: officials of the Communist government and liberal intellectuals who want their government to adopt democratic reforms. Though the Chinese leadership has criticized Bush for his strong support for Taiwan, the invasion of Iraq and a unilateralist foreign policy, many in government circles here say that a second Bush term would mean predictability and continued stability in U.S.-China relations. A Kerry presidency, on the other hand, could mean new friction over trade or human rights, these analysts say.

The Chinese government has refrained from commenting officially on the race. But an internal directive by the party's propaganda authorities, journalists said, recently criticized state media for "openly negating President Bush, openly affirming the movie 'Fahrenheit 911,' and openly predicting Kerry's election," and alleged that such coverage "has had a harmful influence on U.S.-China relations."

If some in the government would prefer a Bush victory in November, so do many of the government's toughest critics. Liberals in China tend to support Bush because they consider him more willing to stand up for democracy and against authoritarian governments, including China's own. "I think Kerry seems weaker on this," said Jiao Guobiao, a professor who published a scathing attack on the party's propaganda department earlier this year and has subsequently been barred from teaching. "Bush understands that mankind suffers from parasites . . . and they need to be addressed forcefully."

Wu Wei, a teacher who runs a pro-democracy Web site and is another Bush fan, said the high interest in the campaign reflects the public's growing desire for political reform. "What people are watching isn't the Communist propaganda of the past about the trickery of the capitalist class," he said. "Instead, it's the truth about a democratic election process -- exactly what China lacks."

-- Philip P. Pan,

The Post's Beijing bureau chief