BEIJING -- Flavia Wang, Ashley Xu and Thomas Liu, all graduate students at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, were casting ballots for Barack Obama here in the basement of a Marriott hotel on Wednesday morning. Before making their selections, they posed for photos with some cardboard cutouts of the president and Mitt Romney, standing stiffly in a back corner of the ballroom.
George Bai was also voting for Obama. "It's easier to select an old friend," said Bai, whose son just started at UCLA this fall as a freshman. "We know more about him."
The votes of Bai, Wang, Xu and Liu (all Chinese citizens) won't actually be tallied in the American presidential race -- the mock balloting was part of an election party hosted by the U.S. Embassy. A crowd of several hundred turned out for the event, which was part celebration, part education: Americans were enjoying the giddy atmosphere of an election too close to call, while trying to explain the intricacies of the electoral college to foreign friends sipping coffee and eating Danish pastries.
Embassy staff handed out books in Chinese with such titles as "The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media" and "A Journey Shared: The United States and China, 200 Years of History."
At at table decorated with American flags, Romney backers John and Terri Tennant of Sacramento were watching big screens displaying CNN and BBC election coverage. The couple, who work in the high-tech sector and came to Beijing 2 1/2 years ago, said watching the election from the Chinese vantage point gave them a new perspective.
"The two main candidates have been talking about China a lot in the campaign, and not in a very friendly way," Terri Tennant said. "We're here in China because our business brought us here. I think all the anti-China talk has been very off-putting. Not just for Chinese, but for Americans who are here too."
Ambassador Gary Locke addressed the crowd, confessing that his family was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. "Across America, these kinds of gatherings are being replicated in homes and churches," he said, adding that more than the presidency was at stake -- many local and state races were also being conducted.
Another embassy staff member pointed out that Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota were voting on gay marriage measures, while other states were voting on whether to legalize marijuana.
Huang He, a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences specializing in American culture and society, was eagerly checking an electoral college map at a makeshift Internet cafe in the center of the ballroom. He had spent one year in Dayton, Ohio, and was eagerly tracking the tally in that swing state.
"As a Chinese, I would vote for Obama, but if I were an American, I would vote for Romney," he said. "Maybe in the far future, scholars will see that Obama has put in some policies that helped the economic recovery, but in the short term, voters cannot see much improvement."
The U.S. election happens to coincide this year with a once-in-a-decade turnover in China's top leadership as well: On Thursday, China's Communist Party will kick off its 18th party congress. According to a transition plan telegraphed five years ago, Xi Jinping is slated to become party secretary, replacing Hu Jintao as the country's top leader.
A host of strict security measures -- from stopping the sales of knives in supermarkets to forcing taxis to disable their window handles -- has been implemented ahead of the party congress in Beijing. Internet speeds have also slowed to a crawl, a phenomenon widely attributed to authorities' desire to clamp down on dissent ahead of the event.
Paul Girard, a 16-year-old from France who attends high school in Beijing, said the contrast between the two systems was striking.
"Now people are voting in America, and here you can't even sell knives. The Internet is down because of the party congress," he said at the Marriott, standing with some classmates. "I don't understand why they take such measures. No one's going to do anything, because no one knows what's happening here in China anyway."
Asked whether ordinary Chinese were paying much attention to the party congress, Xu, one of the graduate students, said: "Everyone knows the outcome of that -- it's Xi Jinping!" But as for the details, Wang added: "They don't tell us much. We don't know much about it, because we are just commoners."
Xu, Wang and Liu then took the opportunity to ask this American some questions about the U.S. electoral system. "Why do they call Obama a socialist?" Liu wondered.
Xu expressed pessimism that China could ever have a democratic election like the one playing out on the video screens before her. "Maybe another form of democracy, but not with all the people voting," she said.
Liu was more optimistic: "Maybe in 10 or 20 years."
-- Julie Makinen
Photo: Chinese guests pose for photos in front of a faux polling station at a party hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Credit: Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times