In China, Obama a U.S. President or Celebrity?
Published: Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 04:09
Two Americans, a German and a Dutch girl walk into a bar, order two mojitos, a San Miguel and a cocktail. The only punchline here is the bar itself, a brightly lit expat hangout whose constant loop of “Sweet Caroline” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” make for good sing-alongs. Of course, we’re not kicking back at The Third Edition or Rhino Bar and Pumphouse (unfortunately). No, we’re in Hong Kong, discussing Mitt Romney.
As the mojitos went from sweet goodness to cold Hong Kong ice, my German and Dutch friends’ tongue-in-cheek jabs toward my Yankee attitude swiftly subsided, replaced by a candid conversation about the choice Americans face in November. Although President Obama is a little too conservative for their taste, they say he’s miles (kilometers, sorry) better than his predecessor. They wouldn’t even entertain supporting a “far-right” (their words) candidate.
Take this conversation with a Baltic Sea-sized grain of salt. This is an anecdote; the political talk was sandwiched in between a debate about whether to attend the Hong Kong version of DayGlow and about what to eat when visiting Cancun. I bring this conversation up only because it mirrors every conversation I’ve had with European exchange students and locals here in Hong Kong.
“Michelle Obama is my idol. … I ‘like’ her on Facebook,” a local female student with a huge smile on her face told me the day after the first lady made her incredible speech at the Democratic National Convention. Hong Kong faces daunting political challenges ahead — you can see it on the university campus here, where some are staging a massive hunger strike to demonstrate their opposition to the Beijing-inspired propaganda taught in schools. Further, surveys of journalists show fears of increased self censorship and outright suppression of the press due to an ever-closer union between Hong Kong and the mainland. But that won’t hold back the students here who laud America’s dedication to personal freedoms.
Chinese people love American films, music and almost anything originally conceived by Steve Jobs. So why the Obama love? To them, he epitomizes a certain coolness, an energetic, fresh face and a rock star who continues to fight for freedom — a commodity that seems fleeting nowadays.
When Hong Kong’s zero electors cast their ballots, they should listen to the overwhelming support the youth here have for the American president. Even the rickshaw demographic demonstrates its support: When a rickshaw driver in Beijing asked a few friends on my trip where they were from (America), a grin brighter than the Orient sun lit up the street. He gleefully stared into their eyes, quickly lifted both thumbs straight in the air and yelled, “OBAMA!”
Probably the most important point, however, is that the approval seems to be born out of admiration for Celebrity Obama, rather than President Obama. Indeed, he’s a lovable commodity, a must-have American brand akin to an iPad or Guitar Idol (a great rip-off of Guitar Hero that we found in Kowloon during an afternoon stroll). They genuinely appreciate his dedication to their perception of American values, but it’s rather rare to find Hong Kong students who are completely in tune with foreign affairs. Indeed, according to Thomas Johnson, an associate professor in City University’s Public and Social Administration department, local students are “far more in touch with local politics” than foreign. He explains that these students are not necessarily as outgoing when it comes to these issues and are generally more pragmatic than ideological when it comes to politics.
Still, I find the respect for the president here interesting. The local students barely have a clue about his politics or his vision for America. However, maybe John McCain’s 2008 “Obama celebrity” advertisement rings truer here than it does stateside: He’s far more of a Denzel Washington or a Brad Pitt than a Bill Clinton or a George W. Bush. Who knows; maybe that’s what America needs abroad — a star-in-chief — to maintain a dominant image. They obviously can’t vote in our election, but if Facebook “likes” are any indication, the world has given our first family a rousing endorsement.
Robert Silverstein is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.