The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chinese debate-watchers shrug at candidates’ China-bashing

President Obama speaks during the town hall debate with Mitt Romney. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney, at Tuesday night's town hall debate, treated China a bit like a "punching bag," as the Wall Street Journal put it, competing for the toughest stance against what they portrayed as Chinese economic cheating. Romney's rhetoric was a bit more pointed — perhaps because Obama's words are more constrained because he is currently holding office — but both gave pictures of China that an Associated Press analysis called "one-dimensional."

The Chinese state media responded with its usual intemperance, particularly to Romney's threat to designate China a currency manipulator. "China perhaps would be forced to fight back, and then his administration would be very likely to be on its way to a global trade war," Xinhua shot back.

Regular Chinese citizens, however, seemed much more sedate in their response, even blasé. Though China's famously raucous social media community has exuberantly followed much of the presidential race, watching and discussing the political conventions in enormous numbers, far fewer seemed to tune into last night's town hall. Part of that may be that debates just aren't as interesting to non-Americans.

"You really have to know the context well to find the debate and town hall meeting interesting," Helen Gao, a Beijing-based Chinese journalist, suggested. She followed debate conversation on both Twitter and on Weibo, China's Twitter, which she called "a graveyard." The scant Weibo response seems, anecdotally, to have been characterized by three things: some light offense-taking, mostly from Romney's comments; praise for the American political system and its practice of publicly challenging leaders; and a touch of confusion.

The nuances of American politics also seem to have puzzled some Chinese viewers, who hear contradictory messages. Helen said that it was "confusing" for some watching in China that the U.S. is simultaneously "asking to improve work conditions for Chinese factory workers while the candidates are vowing to bring jobs back."

Perceived American slights often provoke umbrage on China's outrage-prone Web, but no matter how tough Romney and Obama got, they didn't seem to spur very much reaction in China. Reports of bird poaching were generating far more interest online. That might change as Chinese state media ramps up their own huffy response, but here's a sampling of the Weibo commentary during the debate, which Helen has kindly translated.

On the China-bashing:

iyoaiq: Romney wants to gain political capital for himself by slamming down on China. Chinese people most remain vigilant of him!

糖果香草: It means China is important, heehee.

壹吱瓶子: Shrug. The heavenly kingdom wants to say that it’s been used to these kinds of attacks.

KatrinaZhang: Why are you always mentioning we great empire of China? We are enjoying our demographic dividend, got problem with that?

KatrinaZhang: Romney, without we great empire of China, what are you going to eat and wear?

On American politics:

@文茜小妹大: Some characteristics of the second round of American presidential debate: the public asks questions politely but not submissively when facing the presidential candidates; the moderator plays a strong and effective role, chasing down the questions the candidates dodge and don’t respond to. She speaks with command and composure; and the candidates don’t put on arrogant manners, at most a cold smile. Neither calls the other one a traitor to the country, and at most just criticizes the other one for being soft to China. On these characteristics of democracy, Taiwan is so behind, and the mainland …

张浩-微博: The fight between the elephant and the donkey, Japanese election, Taiwan election, all of them use China as a stepping stone. Even Chinese election is like this as well, sad.

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