Tea Leaf Nation
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Now Viral in China
Viewers there took President Obama’s self-deprecating humor as a lesson in popular politics.
On the evening of April 25, journalists, politicians, and celebrities gathered at an exclusive hotel in Washington, DC for what has become an annual ritual: a night of bipartisan roasts, self-congratulatory schmoozing, and a joke-filled presidential address at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. In what has become a popular feature of the dinner, President Barack Obama closed out the night with a speech laden with self-deprecating humor (“I look so old that John Boehner’s already invited Netanyahu to speak at my funeral”) and good-humored jabs at his own party (“Today thanks to Obamacare, you no longer have to worry about losing your insurance if you lose your job. You’re welcome, Senate Democrats”). Obama’s comic address, while popular, is hardly novel in an American political culture rich with satire and a long history of rousing presidential engagement with both the press and the public.
But to another audience 8,000 miles away, the U.S. president’s comedy routine seemed refreshingly candid. After a video of the speech, complete with Chinese subtitles, appeared April 26 on Chinese social media platform Weibo, users shared it more than 45,000 times. Many took Obama’s deadpan cracks and casual demeanor as a lesson in popular politics. “Just think about how dry and boring our leaders’ annual new year’s speeches are, with such an air of superiority and a mouthful of meaningless talk,” wrote one user in a popular comment. “When we will be able to see [our own] leaders give speeches so full of humanity?” The comparison to China’s own leaders seemed to resonate, with another user writing, “I like these kinds of American leaders who can make jokes and poke fun at themselves. Our country’s leaders…” The user let the sentence trail off. Others seemed to admire the openness the zingers represented. “A truly great nation,” wrote one user, is one that “doesn’t freak out as soon as someone throws out an insulting phrase.”
The U.S. president’s irreverent address contrasts sharply with the default tone for China’s own political leadership. The Chinese Communist Party has traditionally produced stolid, tight-laced leaders whose private lives and families remain veiled from public sight. Even popular current President Xi Jinping, whom some on social media have fondly dubbed “Papa Xi,” has let down his hair only slightly, at least by American standards. After Xi gave his annual 2015 Lunar New Year address while seated at his office desk – a choice unremarkable by American standards – many expressed excitement at a rare glimpse into the personal space of the country’s most powerful man. Still, as president, Xi has never even granted a press conference about domestic policy, much less joked about his own political party in front of roomful of reporters. Xi has also overseen marked tightening on media and online expression, and his name remains a highly censored keyword on Chinese social media platforms. But even the small steps that Xi has taken towards relaxing the more robotic aspects of his office have resonated among Chinese, many of whom seem eager for more likable leaders. “Political wisdom,” reflected one user in another popular comment on the video of Obama’s speech, “includes the president not putting on such an affected manner that he no longer resembles a human being. It includes the people viewing the leader as a person, not a god.”
This wasn’t the first time Obama’s casual demeanor and self-deprecating humor has gone viral in China. Netizens there marveled at the U.S. president’s cracks at his own low ratings during his Dec. 8 appearance on popular satire show “The Colbert Report,” which even made headline news in state news agency Xinhua. Speeches by First Lady Michelle Obama have proven popular in China as well. After watching an online video of her Sept. 2012 address to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in which she shared details of the presidential couple’s humble origins, Chinese social media users expressed envy at having a First Lady so warmly engaged in public life. (Xi’s glamorous wife and former singer Peng Liyuan has since become the first Chinese First Lady to publicly embrace the spotlight.)
As China grows in power and global influence, many there continue to watch the United States, still the world’s primary superpower, with a combination of distrust and admiration. Some onlookers seemed to take American society’s penchant for satire not just as a refreshing marker of political openness, but also a sign of American resilience. “Daring to laugh at yourself, whether a nation or an individual,” an assistant professor of international political economy wrote on Weibo in response to Obama’s speech, “just might be a manifestation of confidence.”