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Fireworks are booming through my Beijing neighborhood tonight, but not in celebration of a new American president. The capital is clearing out for Chinese New Year, with thousands headed home to the provinces for weeklong-plus family celebrations. Revelers here are getting an early start on explosives to ring in the Year of the Ox and Beijingers’ general attitude toward Obama’s inauguration is subdued, to put it mildly. By the time the new president is sworn in, after midnight here, most of the Chinese capital will be fast asleep – save for scattered house parties and bars where expats go to gather around televisions.
Most here are withholding judgment until they see how this new president approaches China, as a friend or foe. I’ve encountered this particular brand of pragmatism with most everyone I’ve asked about Obama. Earlier this week in Harbin, a frozen city in the far northeast, a chatty hotel manager asked where I was from. “Ah, you’re American. You’re getting a new president this week.” Yes, I said, what do you think about that? He was unimpressed, to say the least.
“I don’t know, they all seem the same,” he said. “You know, we Chinese don’t vote for president.”
The Obama family is splashed across some Chinese front pages today, mainly next to low-key, friendly stories talking about style, history and whether Obama will carry forward with three decades of a improved Sino-US relations. The main Party wire service, Xinhua, warns that Obama will have his hands full.
“Despite the whole nation's blessings and all of his living predecessors, Obama will inherit a nation in deep economic woes with record-high unemployment, struggling key industries like finance and auto, an alarming housing crisis, among others, dragged by rocketing war spending and a collapsed financial system.”