WASHINGTON—China’s leaders may wonder what the new government here means for U.S. China policy, but many ordinary citizens from the world’s most populous country say they found President Barack Obama’s inauguration inspiring.
A caller from Beijing to RFA’s Mandarin service hotline Voices of the People said he couldn’t imagine a gathering of nearly 2 million people attending a similar event in China.
“During the Olympic torch relay, I was blocked from going near Tiananmen Square. In America the people went to the mall in Washington on their own. In China they would have been organized by the Party or their work units,” he said.
“The crowd on the mall was genuinely excited and full of joy, and I thought, ‘This is truly a president elected by the people,’” the caller said.
“When the people yelled ‘Obama! Obama!’ I could tell their joy was heartfelt. If only I could have been there, for even one minute, I too would have been moved to tears,” he said.
A man surnamed Li, from northern China, said in an interview that he was shocked and thrilled by the atmosphere of the inauguration ceremony.
“I could tell that when people were yelling his name, it came from the bottom of their hearts,” Li said.
“Mr. Obama, an African-American, can become the president of the United States. I can’t imagine that minority people in China—the people of Tibet or of Xinjiang—could become the leader of the country,” he said.
A man surnamed Song, also from northern China, said in an interview that viewing the U.S. inauguration made him wonder what life in China would be like with a democratic government.
“If China were to adopt a democracy like America it wouldn’t have as many poor people or as many corrupted officials either. If China were to adopt a democracy, society would become more harmonious.”
Approach with caution
Beijing was quick to welcome Obama to his new role but simultaneously issued statements suggesting caution over how the new president might proceed with U.S.-China affairs.
The official Xinhua news agency published an editorial urging Obama not to ignore the progress made in bilateral relations by his predecessor, George W. Bush.
The agency, a platform for the Chinese government to address foreign readers, called improved relations between “the world's single superpower and the largest developing country” the former president’s most important legacy.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was quoted as saying he was optimistic that China can further improve relations with the United States under Obama, adding that “the two countries should continue to evaluate and treat the bilateral relationship from a strategic and long-term point of view.”
Yang also expressed hope that the two countries would “deepen dialogue and exchange” while “paying attention to the fundamental concerns on both sides.”
State-run China Central Television carried a live broadcast of the inaugural ceremony, but simultaneous translation of the address was interrupted by a news anchor when Obama spoke of facing down communism and warned governments against the silencing of dissent.
Obama aides have said that the administration plans to press China further on its human rights record.
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher Liu Weidong suggested Obama may take a harder line in this area.
"Obama is more concerned about human rights, trade, and the environment than Bush, so the U.S. will put more pressure on China about these issues. That's why some say that China feels nervous," Liu told AFP in an interview.
Professor Zhu Yongde of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York said that Obama’s priority in foreign relations will be to tackle the Middle East crisis and that Beijing has a substantial influence on the Palestinian leadership.
But he said that “given its potentially powerful economic growth, I don’t think the Obama administration would turn a blind eye on China.”
Louisa Coan Greve, program director for East Asia at the National Endowment for Democracy, said supporters of human rights are emboldened by Obama’s relationship with the Dalai Lama, who has been living in exile in India since Tibet came under Chinese rule in 1959.
The two leaders met in 2005 at a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee event and the Dalai Lama recently forwarded his “deep congratulations” and prayers for success to the new president.
“Supporters of human rights in China were thrilled to see the President’s warm embrace of the Dalai Lama and his sympathy and understanding for Tibetans’ desire for human rights in China…Executive orders dealing with human rights in American foreign policy will provide a strong commitment [from the administration] and surely that will apply to China as well,” Greve said.
Another item that will test relations is the new administration’s plans for the 17 ethnic Uyghurs originally from northwestern China who have been held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility without charge since 2001.
Obama has signed an executive order to close the facility, but officials have been reluctant to return the men to China, where they would likely be executed under Chinese law.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Jill Ku. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.