Tea Leaf Nation

Obama’s Colbert Cameo Somehow Goes Viral in China

Reaction to the Obamacare skit says more about Chinese politics than it does about America.


After U.S. President Barack Obama made a guest appearance on popular cable satire show The Colbert Report on Dec. 8, featuring deadpan cracks at his own low approval ratings and swiftly-graying hair, chuckling Chinese netizens couldn’t seem to resist the political humor — or making veiled comparisons to Obama’s more stolid counterpart, Chinese President Xi Jinping.

After its appearance, the clip of Obama’s cameo quickly started zipping around Chinese social media. On Dec. 9, a subtitled version of the video showed up on “YouTube Favorites,” an account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform featuring short entertainment clips mostly pulled from U.S. television. (The post was shared more than 75,000 times.) A fan in Guangzhou, the capital of south China’s Guangdong province, wrote in response to the clip that he admired the American president’s “emotional intelligence quotient,” and wrote: “I really have a lot to learn from Obama.” It was even headline news. The official Xinhua News Agency carried a report about Obama’s appearance on the show, noting that American democrats were reeling from their losses in the midterm elections and that Obama was also under fire from Republicans who accuse him of overstepping his presidential mandate. It cited foreign news media saying that the stab at comedy was an attempt to drum up more support for the Democrats, especially among youth.

But the viral reception for the video – which is full of inside jokes aimed at Americans, and isn’t side-splittingly funny – says more about Chinese politicians than it does about sentiment toward the United States. On Weibo, more than a few made explicit or veiled comparisons between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is considered far more charismatic than his predecessor Hu Jintao but still maintains a fairly buttoned-up public image. (An exception here proves the rule: When Xi last year delivered a New Year’s greeting from what appeared to be his regular work desk, his stone-faced holiday message was considered a breakthrough in Communist Party soft power.) But Xi has stayed far away from the risky brand of comedy that Obama braves with his appearances on The Colbert Report, the Between Two Ferns show in March of this year and his jokes at the 2013 White House Correspondents Dinner.

One of the most popular comments on Obama’s performance came from a woman in central China’s Anhui province who wrote on Weibo, “Just try to imagine Uncle Xi (Xi Jinping) showing up on Happy Camp.” Happy Camp is a popular variety show blending comedy, singing, and dancing that has brought on a slew of celebrity guests such as Hong Kong movie stars Jackie Chan and Andy Lau. It’s nearly impossible to imagine Xi making an appearance. Xi’s wife, the famous singer Peng Liyuan, has in contrast done some interviews that reveal an easy-going nature and a sense of humor. In 1999, when her husband was the acting governor of Fujian province, she chatted amiably with the host of a talk show on Hong Kong’s Phoenix Satellite Television. During the 24-minute segment she laughed easily and often, talking about her housecleaning habits and performing for peasants in rural China. She also joked with the host about which was the right Chinese word to describe her marriage. The proper and traditional language, she explained, was to say that she had been taken as a bride, not that she had taken a husband.

Those casual interviews tapered off for Peng as her husband rose in the political ranks. Now the couple are hidden behind the scrim of Communist Party propaganda. That’s not to say the Chinese government doesn’t care about public opinion. The government has worked hard to build a cult of personality around Xi since he rose to power in November 2012, but the effort appears mainly concerned with nurturing feelings of adulation, not making him personable.

But many Chinese are weary of this dated style of propaganda. One man in Putian, a small city in coastal China, responded to the Obama clip with the comment that it made him sick to see “sycophantic reports” about political leaders. He added another line, thick with apparent sarcasm: “Right, I am talking about North Korea.” (It seemed clear he was actually talking about China.) But privacy and opacity for the top leadership are among the perks of single-party rule. As several Chinese netizens remarked, Xi doesn’t need to court public approval for his party the way Obama does. A man from Shantou, a manufacturing hub in Guangdong, wrote, “Guys who need to win votes are always more fun than those who don’t need to.”

Image: Weibo/Fair Use

Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.

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