Conservatives welcome Obama victory -- in Britain

President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Now that the rancorous U.S. election is over, there’s one place that President Obama can count on the support of conservatives: Britain.
LONDON -- Now that the rancorous U.S. election is over, there’s one place that President Obama can count on the support of conservatives: Britain.

Official congratulations from the British government on Obama’s reelection received sustained applause in Parliament on Wednesday, with much of the enthusiasm emanating from benches packed with lawmakers from the ruling Conservative Party.

That’s partly because Obama remains an admired figure in Europe, but also because British Prime Minister David Cameron has forged a warm relationship with the Democratic president. Before election day, the media here reported that Cameron, 46, was privately rooting for Obama, with whom he shares a generational rapport.

That affinity exists despite some philosophical and political gulfs between the two men. For example, Cameron’s coalition government has imposed massive public-spending cuts that would make even American tea party activists envious. (Perhaps it’s all that tea they drink in Britain.)

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Pakistanis expect ties with U.S. to remain tense after Obama win

PakistanISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Like the rest of the world, Pakistan watched keenly the electrifying finish to the U.S. presidential election that culminated in President Obama’s victory. But for most Pakistanis, the enthusiasm stops there.

Any change in Pakistan’s caustic relationship with the U.S. in the next four years is likely to be viewed through the prism of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal region -- two war-ravaged places where Washington and Islamabad desperately want lasting stability but disagree sharply about how to achieve it.

Both Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney touted similar Afghanistan-Pakistan game plans that involve commitments to a U.S. troop pullout from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and a continued reliance on drone missile strikes to cripple Al Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups ensconced in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Pakistanis remain deeply skeptical of Washington’s withdrawal strategy in Afghanistan. They worry the U.S. will maintain a strong presence in Afghanistan long after 2014, principally as a perch from which to ensure extremist groups do not gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal. And a continuation, at least for now, of the drone campaign — seen by most Pakistanis as a blatant encroachment of their country’s sovereignty — will perpetuate the intense animosity many Pakistanis have for Washington’s policies.

“The perception here is that U.S. policy is not going to undergo a major change, in terms of the Af-Pak region,” said Raza Rumi, an analyst with the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad think tank. “U.S. troops will withdraw in 2014. ... But the security establishment—the military, intelligence agencies, defense analysts—feels the U.S. won’t disappear from the region. It will be watching Pakistan closely. More importantly, it will keep Pakistan’s nuclear assets under scrutiny.

“So the Pakistani state is slightly edgy as to what the U.S. wants once Afghanistan is over,” Rumi added. “How will the U.S. observe Pakistan, and what steps will it take?”

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China, U.S., Europe battling over a shrinking global-trade pie

Chinese container ship bringing goods to Port of Long Beach
In polite, diplomatic language, China this week accused Eurozone leaders of piling up debts that threaten a global economic crisis, and the Europeans countered with complaints that Beijing manipulates its currency to unfairly skew trade in its favor.

GlobalFocusThe subtle verbal shots fired on the fringes of the Asia-Europe Summit in Vientiane, Laos, echo a theme raised during the U.S. presidential election, when Republican challenger Mitt Romney vowed to take up the gauntlet of a trade war he said had been thrown down by China.

 Both battles reflect the fear and uncertainty confronting the world's biggest economies in this fifth year of stalled growth and persistent recession, trade experts say. And with little hope on the horizon for revving the main economic engines any time soon, the rhetoric and posturing are likely to grow sooner than the rivals' bottom lines.

The European Union is China’s largest trading partner, and the sovereign debt crisis afflicting the 17 nations that use the euro common currency has been cutting into Europeans’ ability to buy Chinese goods. On Monday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told the European delegates that they needed to come up with “a clear and reliable" plan for resolving the debt crisis that is stifling growth and trade.

French President Francois Hollande countered with a swipe at China’s artificially suppressed currency value, which makes Chinese products cheaper than they should be and contributes to the trade imbalance favoring Beijing.

"Europe has always trusted the market on condition that the rule of reciprocity is the same for everyone," Hollande said, alluding to the artificially set value of the Chinese yuan, also known as the renminbi. "We need to have equal exchange. We believe in an open market system."

Trade and economic analysts say China has moved some distance to correct currency distortion over the last few years, with the yuan exchange rate improving from more than 8 to the dollar to 6.29 on Tuesday. That’s close to a 25% appreciation, most of it in the last four years, noted Perry Wong, director of research for the Milken Institute and a frequent visitor to China.

Some economists set the actual value at closer to 5 yuan to the dollar, but full correction cannot be accomplished overnight, Wong said.

"Transformation in China will take time. In terms of structural change, for them to rely less on exports and import more goods from foreign countries, and to promote the quality of labor in China, will take years," Wong said. Most countries intervene to some degree to "more fully accommodate their own domestic economic agendas," he added, including the U.S. Federal Reserve Board policy of quantitative easing.

Wen Jiabao at Asia-Europe Summit in LaosChina’s alarm over the European debt crisis is justified, as it could portend a coming period of global economic upheaval, said Bruce Abramson, a partner with the Rimon Law Group and an expert in valuation, intellectual property, trade and competition.

"The Eurozone crisis is likely to spread into a global monetary crisis. It’s a testament to the Eurocrats that they have held it together as long as they have," said Abramson, predicting a five- to 10-year period of recession or feeble growth on the continent, in the United States and potentially in China. Growth this year in China's economy is pegged at 7.4%, down from 10% to 12% only a few years ago.

The persistent pressures presage more friction over trade rules and practices, Abramson said.

"Economic growth is a necessary prerequisite for peace, tolerance, acceptance -- all kinds of good things. But when the pie is shrinking, everybody, whether local, individual or national, worries about how to hold on to what they already have."

When you’ve got 10 people vying for control of only nine things of value, "you either learn how to make more things or how to have fewer people," he said. "More things is economic growth. Fewer people is war."

Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Asia Society, said voices within China's centrally planned economy are gaining strength in their calls for structural reforms that would boost wages and social services for Chinese workers and find a better trade balance by allowing the currency to float to its actual exchange value.

"China is making preliminary steps toward making its economy less oriented toward exports, but the economy is still massively oriented toward exports," Metzl said, pegging the share of its output sold abroad at 70%.

That imbalance will persist as long as the yuan is undervalued and workers are underpaid, Metzl said.

"Certainly recession in Europe and sluggish growth in the United States are harming China’s ability to export. But unless China undertakes significant structural reforms, growth in China is very likely to continue to decelerate because of the inherent problems and imbalances," he said.

China’s communist government also plays "way too strong a role in the domestic economy," he added, which stifles innovation in the private sector that would make Chinese products more competitive and foster a healthier global trade environment.

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Follow Carol J. Williams at www.twitter.com/cjwilliamslat

Photo: A China Shipping Container Lines Co. vessel enters the Port of Long Beach this week. The U.S. Census Bureau is scheduled to release trade balance data on Thursday. Credit: Tim Rue / Bloomberg

Insert: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrives at the Asia-Europe Summit in Vientiane, Laos, on Tuesday. Credit: Barbara Walton / European Pressphoto Agency


U.S. election party in Beijing: part celebration, part education

IMG_20121107_121751
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."

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-- 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

 

 


Deadly Syrian stalemate spurs new diplomacy, little hope

Syrian rebel amid rubble of recent battle near Aleppo
Galvanized by a Syrian death toll that has doubled to 36,000 in little more than a month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for a new rebel hierarchy to direct the fighting against President Bashar Assad and steer Syria back to peaceful ethnic and religious coexistence.

GlobalFocusThe latest proposal for halting Syria's 19-month-old civil war brings little new strategy to the crisis. Rather, it vents frustration with the international community’s own "divisions, dysfunctionality and powerlessness," as the International Crisis Group recently noted, that have prevented brokering an end to the bloodshed.

Like European leaders before her, Clinton acknowledged this week that the West’s reliance on out-of-touch exiles within the Paris-based Syrian National Council has done more harm than good in the effort to have opposition forces speak with one voice on their plans for a post-Assad future.

Clinton told reporters accompanying her on a trip to North Africa and the Balkans on Wednesday that the Obama administration will be suggesting names and organizations it believes should play prominent roles in a reconfigured rebel alliance that Western diplomats hope to see emerge from Arab League-sponsored talks next week in the Qatari capital, Doha.

But the U.S. push to get the opposition’s act together also exudes desperation. In the two months since a failed rebel campaign to take strategic ground around major cities, fighting has ground down to a bloody impasse, giving neither Assad nor his opponents hope of imminent victory on the battlefields.

The rebels’ summer offensive also exposed the widening role of Islamic extremists who have entered the fight, bringing arms and combat experience to the side of Assad’s fractured opponents. But the Islamic militants’ alignment with Syrians trying to topple Assad also gives weight to the regime’s claims to be fighting off terrorists, not domestic political foes.

Clinton reiterated the West’s insistence that Assad have no role in Syria’s future. That prompted immediate pushback by Russia and China, which have opposed what they call foreign interference in Syrian domestic affairs.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Paris for talks with his French counterpart when Clinton announced the Obama administration’s latest initiative. A longtime ally and arms supplier to Syria, Russia has blocked three United Nations Security Council resolutions to censure Assad and, along with China, has rejected Western demands that the Syrian president resign and leave the country.

"If the position of our partners remains the departure of this leader who they do not like, the bloodbath will continue," Lavrov warned.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi registered Beijing’s objections by unveiling a "four-point plan" for bringing peace to Syria that reiterates the communist state’s position that the future of Syria be left for Syrians -- including Assad -- to decide.

Beijing has a solid history of blocking international intervention on human rights grounds, apparently fearing China could become a target of such actions because of its harsh treatment of dissent and political opponents.

For some Middle East experts, the solution to Syria’s crisis lies somewhere between the Russian-Chinese "hands-off" policy and the U.S.-led Western view that only regime change will bring about peace.

"This conflict is for Syrians and their neighbors to resolve, with European and Russian involvement. The U.S. should stay one removed," said Ed Husain, senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He described Clinton’s appeal for a new rebel leadership structure as "laudable, but a year too late."

"She’s driven by a desire to want to help now, but also to ensure a smooth transition in a post-Assad Syria. Sadly, reality on the ground dictates otherwise,” Husain said, alluding to entrenched battles that portend a long standoff.

Growing fears that extremists are gaining clout with the rebels also complicates diplomacy, as Syria’s Shiite, Christian, Kurdish and other minority sects are wary of how they would fare under a Sunni-dominated government allied with fundamentalist jihadis.

Clinton emphasized that extremist forces should be excluded from any new opposition forum that might emerge from Doha.

"It may seem ironic to call for a broad tent and then say 'except for those guys.' But I think the administration and other countries concerned about the future of Syria know that one of the challenges will be to have an analysis of who is who in the opposition,” said Charles Ries, a career U.S. diplomat now heading Rand Corp.’s Center for Middle East Public Policy.

Ries sees the need for "more movement on the ground in Syria" before Assad or the rebels are ready to submit to negotiations on the country’s future.

He is hesitant to declare the civil war a stalemate or the Russian-Chinese position unchangeable in the long run. But with rebels pinned down in the urban areas they hold and warding off attacks by Assad’s superior armed forces, he said, no one seems to think Assad is in the kind of imminent danger of being ousted that would be the catalyst for negotiation and compromise.

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Follow Carol J. Williams at www.twitter.com/cjwilliamslat

Photo: A Syrian rebel fighter last month defends territory near Aleppo, one of many urban battlegrounds the opponents of President Bashar Assad are now struggling to hold. Credit: Zac Baillie / AFP/Getty Images


Obama still a winner in Europe, poll shows

Europe favors President Obama over Mitt Romney
LONDON -- The U.S. presidential election remains too close to call, but there’s one place where the polls show President Obama blowing Mitt Romney out of the water: Europe.

A survey of seven European nations, including longtime U.S. allies Britain and France, has found that Obama would win more than 90% of the vote if the respondents could cast ballots in Tuesday’s race. The survey was conducted by YouGov, a respected British-based polling organization that has also tracked Obama’s and Romney’s numbers within the U.S.

“No doubt many Americans are not overly concerned about who Europeans think they should vote for,” said Joe Twyman, YouGov’s director of political and social research. “On the other hand, history has shown that when a president is unpopular with the people of Europe, it can have a far-reaching
effect on how those people view the whole United States.”

The poll, which covered Britain, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, found that Romney failed to garner more than 10% support in any of those countries. In Sweden and Denmark, the former Massachusetts governor fared even worse: Only 1 in 20 people named him as their choice.

The results attest to Obama’s enduring popularity on this side of the Atlantic even as he has struggled to maintain support at home.

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Study: Pot legalization in U.S. states could hurt Mexican cartels

Pot

MEXICO CITY -- This may not weigh heavily on the minds of voters in Seattle, but if Washington and two other U.S. states decide to legalize marijuana in next week's election, the effect on drug traffickers in Mexico could be enormous.

Such is the suggestion of a new study by a Mexican think tank.

"It could be the biggest structural blow that [Mexican] drug trafficking has experienced in a generation," Alejandro Hope, security expert with the Mexican Competitiveness Institute, said in presenting the report.

Producing and distributing marijuana inside the U.S. would supply a less expensive and better quality drug to the millions of American who smoke it, Hope said. Demand for Mexican pot would decline, cutting into cartels' profits by 22% to 30%, the study calculates.

The consequences would be most dramatic, Hope added, for the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, which is based in western Mexico and controls most of the marijuana production.

It is estimated that around one-third of Mexican drug gangs' income is from marijuana, surpassed only and narrowly by cocaine.

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Pentagon decided not to send troops to Benghazi during attack

Leonpanetta
WASHINGTON -- U.S. military commanders decided against sending a rescue mission to Benghazi during the attack against the American diplomatic mission last month because they didn’t have enough clear intelligence to justify the risk to the troops, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Thursday.

Panetta, in his fullest comments yet on the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, said Pentagon officials were aware of the assault by armed militants soon after it began Sept. 11. But he said they never had more than fragmentary information during the course of the attack.

The “basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s taking place,” Panetta told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. “This happened within a few hours, and it was really over before we had the opportunity to really know what was happening.”

He said he, Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all believed“very strongly that we could not put troops at risk in that situation.”

Panetta’s comments came after House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) released a letter he had sent to President Obama demanding more details of the administration’s handling of the incident, including the military response.

Panetta said there was “a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on.”

The Defense secretary and other senior Pentagon officials were at the White House that afternoon for a previously scheduled meeting. Later that evening, they decided to order two warships to the coast of Libya and send a special operations team from Central Europe to Sicily to be closer to Benghazi.

But because of the lack of precise information, they didn't make that decision until after the attack was over, officials said. A small team of soldiers flew to Benghazi from Tripoli, 400 miles away, and ultimately helped evacuate about two dozen diplomats and other embassy employees.

Republicans have sought to portray the attack as a symbol of a failed administration policy. U.S. officials have said they had no credible intelligence indicating that an attack was being planned in Benghazi.

The incident is under investigation by House and Senate committees, the FBI and a special State Department review panel.

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-- Paul Richter

Photo: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey answer questions at a Pentagon news conference on Oct. 25, 2012, about the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images


U.S. gas bonanza from fracking slow to spread globally

World_Shale_Basins_Map01_05-05-11

In less than a generation, the United States has soared to world leadership in extracting natural gas from shale formations by hydraulic fracturing. But as the world debates whether “fracking” is an economic boon or a budding environmental disaster, few foreign countries are following the U.S. lead.

GlobalFocusConditions unique to the United States have encouraged investment in the abundant source of low-carbon energy and boosted prospects for reducing dependence on costly and unpredictable supplies of foreign oil. Of the natural gas consumed in the United States last year, 94% came from domestic production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“The availability of large quantities of shale gas should enable the United States to consume a predominantly domestic supply of gas for many years and produce more natural gas than it consumes,” the agency reports, predicting a 29% increase in output by 2035, almost all of it from shale fracking.

The rapid advance toward self-sufficiency has made the U.S. industry both a model and a cautionary tale for other countries pondering all-in development of their shale-gas reserves.

Significant deposits of natural gas trapped in coal and shale seams have been identified in Eastern and Western Europe, Canada, Australia, China, South Africa and the cone of South America. Global energy giants like Shell and Chevron are bankrolling billions in exploration, sizing up the cost-effectiveness of replicating the U.S. boom in more remote locales with little infrastructure.

Technological advances in horizontal drilling have made it feasible to tap small pockets of gas trapped in shale layers a mile or more below the surface. Contractors bore thousands of feet down through soil, rock and water layers, then drill laterally through the shale to create a horizontal well. When sand, water and chemicals are blasted into the bore holes, the force fractures the shale, releasing gas from fissures within the sedimentary rock. The gas is captured and ferried by pipeline to distribution grids or to port facilities where it can be converted to liquefied natural gas for overseas shipment.

But the process leaves behind tons of chemical-contaminated mud. There are also reports of drinking water pollution from the chemicals and methane gas that escapes into underground reservoirs. A study last year published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documented “systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale gas extraction” in the aquifers above the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in the U.S. Northeast.  This spring, the U.S. Geological Survey reported “a remarkable increase” in the occurrence of earthquakes of magnitude 3 or larger that it tied to fracking operations.

This month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office acknowledged that the Environmental Protection Agency was finding it “challenging” to inspect and enforce clean air and clean water regulations in the fast-moving fracking industry. For example, the GAO report noted, the EPA is often unable to evaluate alleged water contamination because investigators lack information about the water quality before the fracking occurred.

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China media: Quiet on Communist Party Congress, gaga for U.S. election

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
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.

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