BEIJING -- If you picked up a Chinese newspaper in the past week, here's a smattering of the details you could have learned about the U.S. presidential campaign: Mitt Romney might be tanning himself in a bid to appeal to minorities; at 7-Eleven convenience stores, Barack Obama mugs are outselling Romney mugs by a 60%-to-40% margin; and Candy Crowley is known as a tough debate moderator.
The two candidates have turned China into a political football this fall, waging verbal war over issues such as outsourcing and currency manipulation. And to be sure, this "China-bashing" element of the contest has not gone unremarked upon in the Chinese media.
"Politicians who always look for scapegoats are either stupid or cowardly," Ding Gang wrote an Op-Ed article in the Global Times. "If Barack Obama or Mitt Romney really won more votes by slandering or playing tough on China, it would be a shame for the American politics and trouble for the world."
But among ordinary Chinese, there appears to be only the mildest concern about the issues of the election. What's of much greater interest, it seems, is just how the whole contest -- and the surrounding hoopla -- works.
Ahead of the second U.S. presidential debate, the Chengdu Business Daily in Sichuan province devoted a full page to the event. The paper outlined the seven major rules of the debate, published a brief biography of Crowley, and explained the whole notion of "cookie bake-offs" between the wives of the candidates and how accurate a predictor they are of actual election results.
Four paragraphs were devoted to how the Obamas had already voted by mail (accompanied by a photo of the First Lady Michelle Obama holding a vote-by-mail ballot). An additional two paragraphs explained why Libya was likely to be raised as an issue in the debate. And then there was the blurb recounting the controversy over Pizza Hut's PR stunt (seeking to persuade attendees at the town-hall-style debate to ask the candidates whether they preferred pepperoni or sausage on their pies).
China is preparing for a major leadership turnover of its own during the second week of November, with Xi Jinping slated to take the reins from Hu Jintao as general secretary of the Communist Party. Yet propaganda officials keep a tight lid not only on the details of party officials' private lives, but even on basic facts surrounding the 18th Party Congress (the dates for the Congress itself were announced only a few weeks ago).
The rather remarkable upshot is that Chinese news hounds are getting more information about the American political transition -- and its personalities and sometimes pathetic sideshows -- than the one in their own country.
(The state-run New China News Agency recently took note of Obama's comments about the loss of privacy he's experienced since becoming president, how he misses going for walks, to the car wash and to the supermarket. Presumably, Xi will never have to air such a complaint, given the type of information blackout Chinese officials are afforded.)
In addition to covering the 7-Eleven mug contest, Saturday's Beijing News informed readers about an Ohio cupcake shop selling treats adorned with the candidates’ faces, and ran a blurb about how Romney's eldest son made a comment about wanting to punch Obama. Readers also learned that Romney and Obama shared a table at a charity dinner on Oct. 18.
A poll launched Sunday on China's Twitter-like site Sina Weibo asked users which candidate they preferred. As of Monday afternoon, Obama was ahead of Romney by a 7-to-1 margin. The Sina portal also carried a music video mashup of the second debate, complete with Chinese subtitles.
The Chinese video portal Youku posted the first Romney-Obama debate in full, albeit without translation, prompting hundreds of users to ask for a transcript. But some viewers were able to follow along in English.
"Democracy is something that can be learned," was the take-away for one viewer by the handle of yisheng youni, perhaps alluding to the oft-mentioned idea that China would never be capable of adopting such a system. "People who are adept at studying can be taught what democracy is."
But another user noted that what U.S. candidates say, and what they are actually able to do, often differs.
"In Democratic countries, the president cannot decide everything himself; he has to seek the opinions of lots of people," commented one user, WKL999. "Because there are lots of opinions, it's hard to implement things. Some things are easier to implement in China."
-- Julie Makinen
Nicole Liu contributed to this report.
Photo: Moderator Candy Crowley at the Oct. 16 debate between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Credit: Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty Images