Most people we’ve met in China don’t follow American politics all that closely, but just about everyone is aware that right now there’s a presidential campaign going on in the United States. However, no one has much interest in Mitt Romney, despite his great wealth, his Mormonism, and the general attention he’s been getting as the presumptive Republican candidate.
Obama artwork in Hangzhou
Instead, what everyone we meet in China wants to know is what we think of Obama and whether we’re going to vote for him the next time around. Over here, he’s seen as a transformative figure, perhaps even more so than by Americans, if that is possible. Along with Hillary Clinton, who is quite popular here among Chinese women, especially, it is Obama whose face most often appears on T-shirts and posters and who has become perhaps the most iconic political figure here since the heavy propaganda era of 1949-1976 produced the Chairman Mao cult. Students in China study Obama’s speeches, and school debate teams analyze, admire, and imitate his rhetorical stylings.
By contrast, the current generation of Chinese bureaucrats and high government officials currently lack, and for the most part seem to avoid, publicity (exception: see the flamboyant lately discredited and probably imprisoned Bo Xilai, former leader of Chongqing province). These days, high officials seem to eschew the iconic stature of the former party Leader, evidently preferring instead to secure their own power and privilege more discreetly. And of course, retail politics (and its associated campaigning) is more or less unheard of in these parts, as power is usually transferred in non-transparent ways, well beyond the view of ordinary Chinese people.
As our Chinese counterparts have observed to us, Obama has made an enormous difference on the world stage. They are only surprised that many Americans have not taken the time more fully to notice the ways that folks beyond our borders now see the United States in a new light because of his election.
It’s a commonplace of discussions about China that air quality is horrendous, and those of us here for long periods usually get tired of reminding everyone about it. But it bears repeating, if only because China stands for the future in so many ways. If we can’t figure out ways of making China’s air quality better, it does not bode well for the future of the Earth’s environmental safety. Today we were out of town visiting another part of China, but a Chinese friend sent along this photo from Nanjing taken on June 10 and posted on Weibo (China’s copycat twitter system). Some of this is the usual terrible smog, but then there’s the added effect of farmers burning off their fields, which adds to the dense pollution that can be seen in the photo Her comment was that this image struck her as a “vision of the Apocalypse.” And she recommended, in all seriousness, that we be sure to wear surgical masks upon our arrival back in Nanjing.
Thanks to a special introduction from an Auburn University colleague who taught previously in China, I was able to visit Yancheng Teachers University for a Fulbright Lecture. Yancheng (“Salt City”) is located a few hours north of Shanghai and well off the usual tourist paths. After dinner with my Yancheng Teachers University colleagues who had driven down to Nanjing Normal University the night before, we made the 3.5-hour car ride together to Yancheng the next morning. Like most Chinese cities, it is a gritty and bustling place. A fast-growing city traditionally based on agriculture and fishing, Yancheng now is home to 7 million permanent residents, 1 million migrant workers, 2 new Kia automobile manufacturing plants, and a number of large textile factories. The university is home to about 20,000 students, including a substantial cohort from the far-western provinces like Xinxiang, which hosts a largely Muslim population. These students are admitted to some Chinese universities using a kind of affirmative action program intended to bring improved education to members of ethnic minority groups in those provinces.
Professor Bi Fengshan of the English Department at Yancheng Teachers University was a wonderful host and gave me an excellent tour of the university and the surrounding area. Here are some photos from the lecture visit; these provide a view of Fulbright lecturing here in China, including a typically large audience of students (in this case, about 130 undergraduate English majors and their instructors). My talk covered 19th-century American literature and race relations, especially in the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which was translated into Chinese in 1901 and has been well known here ever since.