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POLITICS-US: Online Poll Shows Obama a Hit in China

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Oct 24 2008 (IPS) - Beijing has a tradition of sound relations with Republican presidents of the United States, but the latest China poll shows popular opinion bucking the trend with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama becoming an "overwhelming hit" with ordinary Chinese.

The results of the online poll conducted on the China Daily website by the U.S. embassy here showed Obama enjoying a much greater lead over his Republican rival, John McCain, with the support of 75 percent of Chinese polled.

"Perhaps his age, energy and even complexion, which signify the U.S. dream, are more appealing to the Chinese," Song Zhiyuan, who analysed the survey, told the ‘China Daily’.

Rebecca Zhu, a 29-year-old bank employee, agreed. "No Chinese leader is that young," she said. "Obama is attractive because he is hip and unconventional. He has even used e-mails to advance his campaign."

The media has been awash with commentaries predicting a new, more sensitive America, vastly different from the country led by George W. Bush, should Obama win. The popular notion in China that the U.S. is out to impose its Western ideals on the world would take a hit with the election of a man of African descent.

"Many think that because of his origins Obama would be prone to considering other nations’ concerns better than McCain,’’ says Shi Yinhong, an expert on international relations at China’s Renmin University. "But for China the most important factor is that he might be more susceptible to our concerns regarding Taiwan."

McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, has adopted a tough stance on national security, promising to create "a strong military in a dangerous world". His pledge to commit more troops to Iraq has not been well received in Beijing.

China has been most unhappy with U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. While John McCain and Obama have both endorsed the U.S. defence department's plan to sell 6.46 billion US dollars worth of weapons to Taiwan, McCain has also said that the administration should grant Taiwan's request for submarines and F-16 fighter jets.

The thorny issue of Taiwan aside, Beijing is comfortable in its knowledge that no matter which presidential candidate wins, bilateral ties are likely to deepen over the next four years. A victory for McCain would have offered a more predictable scenario for China – accustomed to dealing with Republican presidents.

George W. Bush – who made securing freedom for people under tyrannical regimes the core of his agenda in his second term of office – managed to achieve strikingly warm relations with China, which he once openly branded a "strategic competitor".

That continued a long history of ‘realpolitik’ bilateral ties between communist leaders in Beijing and Republican presidents, initiated by Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Mao’s China in 1972. In 1984, Ronald Reagan went to China too, his first visit to a communist country in the middle of the Cold War waged against the former Soviet Union.

George Bush, father of the incumbent president and a lifelong Sinophile, spent more than a year in China before becoming president. He was instrumental, during his presidency, for granting preferential trade status to China, and that, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre.

"It is not that China ‘loves’ Republicans more,’’ says Prof. Guo Xiangang at the China Institute of International Studies that functions under the foreign ministry. "It is more about having a common goal that binds us. Nixon and Reagan used China as a chip to counter the threat of the Soviet Union. Bush needs China’s help in his fight against terrorism."

Beijing has now got used to the reality of harsh anti-authoritarian rhetoric during U.S. presidential campaigns, which quickly gives way to more pragmatic engagements once the elected candidate is in office. "Our bilateral ties are now above the campaign rhetoric," says Guo.

The most memorable example of such about-face concerns former U.S. Democratic president Bill Clinton famously denouncing Bush for "coddling aging rulers with undisguised contempt for democracy, for human rights," and then, once elected, deciding that using trade policy to leverage human rights was counterproductive.

After his 1998 visit to China, Clinton went on to become one of the most popular U.S. presidents among Chinese people – a household name remembered for his outgoing demeanour and political charisma.

But Clinton’s celebrity status in China now seems to be challenged by Obama’s sway among young Chinese people.

"It simply shows how much young Chinese people follow popular opinion in the U.S.," says Prof. Shi. "Two months ago, the same poll would have come out with a different result. Now, the financial crisis has changed everything. The McCain camp is on the losing side."

However, the choice is not as clear cut as it first appears. Obama’s criticism of China’s trade practices and his demand that China "play by the international rules" have irked the Chinese leadership, which fears regular admonishments over its human rights records from a Democratic president.

Obama has threatened to impose trade sanctions due to concerns over the yawning trade surplus, currency manipulation and intellectual property rights violations.

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