In China, Obama will glimpse world's new center of gravity

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 14, 2009 

SHANGHAI — When President Barack Obama lands here Sunday night in China's largest city, he'll find many of its 20 million people intrigued by him and welcoming, but hardly deferential, and some openly skeptical of his promises of change.

Obama will find a stunning futuristic skyline of orbs, skyscrapers, flashing neon and curling overpasses. If he gets outside his protective security bubble, he'll see streams of fresh-smelling cars of the newly affluent, grimy noodle shops selling 50-cent soups and chicken feet, fusion bars and multinational corporate headquarters. He'll also be watched by educated Chinese increasingly confident about their prospects if they stay in China, and less convinced that America's where it's at.

In this, the mainland's most Western-minded and economically dynamic center, where Obama will deliver remarks on Monday before moving on to the capital of Beijing, many Shanghainese see the global balance of power shifting: China is ascending, while America may have peaked.

"The U.S. is a very big and strong country, military-wise, economy-wise. It's still important," said Zhou Jun, 38, who runs a garment business in Shanghai. "But compared to before, China has a lot more influence on the world."

In this nation of 1.3 billion people — a billion more than the U.S. — there's a deep gulf between the haves and have-nots. Hundreds of millions of poor Chinese worry about illness, about how they'll survive the early snow, how they'll make ends meet. For many younger people in Shanghai, however, the standard of living is quickly improving.

Today versus a decade or two ago, Zhou said, "I make more money. My home is a lot bigger. Everybody's homes are getting bigger."

There's populist support for the American and Chinese governments working together to contain North Korea, clean the environment and save the world economy.

There's also mistrust.

On pollution and consumer safety, several Chinese asked: Doesn't American demand for cheap goods drive manufacturing? Don't Americans worry less when it's someone else's dirty air and water? On the economy: Why should Americans criticize the Chinese for how they manage their currency when the U.S. can print more money and expect China and Japan to prop it up?

Many Chinese like seeing Americans doing business here. While Obama talks about supporting free trade, however, they see his tariffs on Chinese tires as evidence that he'll usher in more protectionism if his political base demands it. Never mind the current trade imbalance that tilts a huge surplus China's way.

"He talks really nice, saying stuff about how he's going to change everything . . . but on the other hand bashing Chinese trade," said Wang Guanjun, 50. Wang's an information technology consultant from Sichuan province who was visiting Super Brand Mall in Pudong, Shanghai's modern half on the east side of the Huangpu River.

"China is a partner with the U.S. If we compromise, it's good for both countries. If America still doesn't want to do free trade, China is still going to become stronger," Wang said. "We have 1.3 billion people. We'll win."

Yang Pei Ming, managing director of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, which specializes in Chinese art from the Maoist period of 1949-'79, said that many Chinese are viewing Obama's arrival with a quintessentially Chinese mix of superstition and pragmatism: "They hope he will bring good luck and stocks will go up."

"The Chinese stock market is very strange, it's not really like America," Yang said.

Chinese overwhelmingly say that Tibet should remain under China's control and that the U.S. is misguided in its openness toward the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

Yang said some Chinese also worry about the U.S. in Afghanistan. "All these tribes: You never know who is the bad guy, who is the good guy." Eyeing his walls of posters depicting Mao, revolution and anti-American campaigns, Yang said, "Personally I don't like war. It destroys the history."

Obama "is a good man, but I don't know if he's wise enough to solve these problems."

Issues that Obama and all U.S. presidents promote — democracy, political freedom and ending censorship — still resonate with young people in the People's Republic. Parts of Obama's inauguration speech were cut from Chinese audiences earlier this year. However, Obama may find passions on these subjects burning with less intensity than in decades past.

Technology is allowing Chinese with Internet and satellite connections to bypass government filters. The global economy makes it easy for city dwellers to connect with people from other places and share information. Capitalism, more than politics, drives the conversation. "Even the leaders talk economics. The whole thing is changing," Yang said.

Zheng Linfeng, 19, a university student in 3-D digital art design, said she doesn't spend much time thinking about censorship or democracy. "I'm used to this," she said of her day-to-day life, which she described as happy.

"I want to say to Mr. Obama I really admire him, I think he's doing a great job," Zheng said.

As for America? Zheng would be interested in visiting to take a class. "But not to stay or live there."

(Special correspondent Kathleen Han contributed to this report.

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