People’s Daily on Obama and the U.S. Election

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Monday’s overseas edition of the People’s Daily has an essay about the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. As Ed Cody notes in the Washington Post, it focuses heavily and rather awkwardly on the issue of race. The overall argument of the People’s Daily piece is that Obama’s candidacy isn’t truly a step forward for equality. Here’s a sample:

Indeed, Sen. Barak Obama does not at all represent the white Anglo-Saxon protestants (WASP), those who belong to the group of middle- and upper-class Americans descended from the British or Northern European settlers, generally regarded as the traditional dominant or privileged group in the U.S. His success, nevertheless, is because he does not underscore his racial features, and has even intentionally drawn a clear line with those radical blacks. So, it can be said that Obama triumphs either because of his skin color or not because of it.

He has a different skin color (with whites) but shares the “same American background”. Obama represents a superb talent or gifted graduate from a top-rate American university, and he is the representative of the racial merging rather than a symbol for assimilation. So his rise has not done away with privileges for the white Americans but reinforces their privileges on the contrary.

Since the piece ran in a main government mouthpiece, it’s tempting to see this as an insight into what Beijing thinks of the candidate. I doubt that’s the case. Governments rarely if ever officially state their preferences in a U.S. presidential race. That would only help the candidate’s opponent, and make relations that much more difficult if the opponent were to win. Even North Korea, not a country usually troubled by diplomatic niceties, hurried to clarify that it had no interest in the last U.S. election when some observers said that Kim Jong-il would prefer John Kerry over George Bush. North Korea “does not care at all whether a candidate from the Democratic Party is elected or a candidate from the Republican Party is elected,” the state-run KCNA news service said in 2004.

The commentary is more about the race in general and what Obama and the “seasoned yet crafty white veteran” McCain represent than the individual candidates themselves. When it addresses Western democracy the Chinese state press frequently emphasizes the various means by which voters can be fooled and how the process favors vested interests over the people. These are treated as revelations but they are generally ignored overseas. People who live in a democracy are much more aware of the system’s shortcomings than the propagandists at the People’s Daily.

But to many this election represents the promise of democracy. As TIME’s Delhi bureau chief Simon Robinson noted earlier this year, the world is taking a keen interest in the U.S. presidential race. I sense it in Beijing, where Chinese and expatriates alike have brought up the arcana of American elections and asked me ahead of the Iowa primary what people in my home state were thinking. You know something is afoot when people overseas wonder what’s on the minds of Iowans. When I ask these people why exactly they care, the answer is, beyond the obvious that the U.S. president can have significant influence all over the world, that the election represents the opportunity to change policies that have made the U.S. deeply unpopular abroad.

The People’s Daily piece takes note of the attention that’s been given to the American election overseas. “One of the causes for the Western media to lavish overpraises onto Obama is owed to his (skin) color, and the other cause is the change that he may bring to American society,” it said, before arguing that his success reinforces white privilege and that a new president will be a change in performers but not necessarily policy. So don’t get your hopes up. After all, if voters could solve problems through elections, what would that mean for the world’s biggest authoritarian state?