BEIJING (Reuters) - China welcomed Barack Obama as a youthful president-elect with the energy to tackle the financial crisis now threatening its economy and an ethnic heritage that could help America reach out to the rest of the world.
Excitement about the billion dollar race filtered down to the streets of Beijing on Wednesday, where ordinary Chinese citizens who have never voted themselves and some who could not even name the candidates embraced Obama’s message of change.
“The black guy is a good choice, he has so much more energy than the other one, who was far too old,” said Han Xue, a new father who runs a small cigarette and alcohol store and followed the results on a television behind the counter.
The dramatic victory, in which Obama carried some states that had not voted for his Democratic party in decades, was a major boost to America’s reputation.
“I am very happy U.S. history was made. I think in a lot of Chinese people’s eyes America was a racist country, even today the television said that white people wouldn’t vote for Obama,” said Li Nan, a student at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“I think that a lot of Chinese will change their mind now.”
But gathering economic storm clouds, which threaten to undermine decades of rapid growth, mean the economic policies of the next leader of the United States are almost as big a concern in Beijing as they were in polling booths across America.
“Obama may be more ideological and that could be less good for China in terms of trade,” said Wang Hongtao, an Obama supporter studying for a doctorate at the Central Party School in Beijing, and following the results at an embassy election party.
Belt-tightening by U.S. consumers as their economy flounders has hit Chinese exporters hard in the “factory of the world,” even though strict controls have protected its banks from the worst of the financial tsunami swamping foreign competitors.
“Officials say there is no impact, but you only have to look around to see that the crisis is already affecting us,” said retiree and firm Obama supporter Yu Ze, during a break from a ping-pong game in a Beijing park.
“It’s better to have a young person with the energy to handle this. We are a little worried about his position on trade issues, but we think his vice-president really understands China.”
Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden, is a foreign policy veteran, chosen partly for his years of experience.
Many Chinese hope Obama’s message of unity and respect, and his promise not to demonise China, will usher in a new era for U.S. ties with the emerging Asian giant.
“Obama needs to treat China as an equal, he needs to respect what we are doing and what we have achieved. Bush was too pushy,” said 24-year-old English teacher Wu Shan.
Chinese Communist leaders have long believed that the United States is determined to subvert and overturn its one-party rule, a theory reinforced by President George W. Bush’s support for pro-Western “colour revolutions” in ex-Soviet states.
And many ordinary Chinese see Western criticisms of their country as a product of fear and envy over its rise, and worry they will try and hold back further development.
“The president needs to understand that China is still a developing country,” said Guo Jie, a student of Japanese.
In general though, the outgoing administration is less unpopular in China than many other parts of the world.
“Actually, Bush’s presidency was quite good for China in many ways,” said street-cleaning supervisor Wang Erxiao, citing expanded trade and adding he would have been happy to see Republican candidate John McCain continue his party’s free-trade legacy.
But in a country where getting involved in politics has long been a recipe for trouble, many ordinary Chinese were steering well clear of a vote taking place thousands of miles away.
“Politics gives me a headache,” said taxi driver Li Hong with a grin. “I stick to entertainment shows on my radio.”
Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby and Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Macfie and Bill Tarrant