Jeffrey Wasserstrom: U.S. Election Day in China Offers a Chance to Participate, Vicariously

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is author of China in the 21st Century (2010) and co-editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (2012). He is an Asia Society Associate Fellow.

I was in Shanghai, eating lunch with friends at a wonderful alleyway restaurant called Mi Xiang Yuan, when I got the welcome news of Obama's re-election. One member of our party, a local food writer who had earlier told me of doing her bit to help the President stay in office by casting an absentee ballot for him, had kept checking her phone for updates from the time we began our meal. She figured — correctly, as it turned out — that the election was likely to be called a little after noon Chinese time November 7, which was late night November 6 in the United State. I let out a sigh of relief when her face lit up and she told all of us at the table that she'd just started getting texts from people she knew saying CNN had called the race for the incumbent.

Our table was the only one with foreigners at it, but looking around I realized that we weren't the only ones in Mi Xiang Yuan who were interested in what was happening across the Pacific. Right next to us, for example, were two young Chinese men following election news on a smart phone they held between them, and I could tell from overhearing snatches of their conversation that they were intensely interested in the reports that were just coming in about Obama's victory. I couldn't tell for sure if they were pleased or displeased by the results, but there was no mistaking their fascination with the process. And it is worth noting something I never heard either of them mention: the upcoming 18th Party Congress. This was scheduled to start the next day in Beijing, and during its course, as they doubtless knew, a formal announcement would be made about who would hold the top positions of power in their country for years to come. One might imagine that, for young people with politics on their minds, this might get a word or two in their conversation over lunch. If either of them said a word about it, though, I must have missed it. I doubt I did....

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