The Xiamen Business Daily put the question directly enough in the headline of its front page story the day after the US election: "Will Chinese Benefit with a Black Man in Charge?"
The answer is: Nobody knows. The president-elect has yet to step off the sidelines, but it’s probably safe to assume that President Obama will continue to engage China economically and diplomatically as previous US presidents have. Furthermore, the sticking points between the two nations – Taiwan, Tibet, currency manipulation, human rights – are unlikely to be resolved by the start or end of the Obama administration. No changes there.
Nonetheless, Obama’s election must be unsettling for China’s leaders who prize stability and thus fear any disruption to the status quo. What’s more, this uncertainty is not confined to the realms of policy. The real challenge Obama presents to the leadership of China, and the world, is one of persona.
Obama’s critics during his campaign asked time and again, "What do we know about Barack Obama?" positing that he was an unknown quantity and therefore dangerous. But his election may raise another more relevant question in China, which is, "What do we know about President Hu Jintao?"
After a bruising two-year campaign, we have seen how Obama responds to attacks, how he thinks about the issues of our day, and we have at least a sense of how he will grapple with the legion of challenges he will inherit. We may not truly know Barack Obama, but we feel like we do. This feeling was largely responsible for the groundswell of internet-enabled grassroots activism that helped vault him to America’s highest office.
Contrast this to Hu, who since rising to the role of president in 2003, remains largely a cipher – unemotional, inscrutable, unapproachable. The upper echelons of China’s government also remain opaque. Internal policy debates that promise sweeping changes for the population occur behind closed doors and are delivered to the people by government fiat.
This, of course, is nothing new in China. But whether this posture is suitable for governing a people in the age of the internet is a question worth asking. Whether this posture is sustainable in an era when a new US president steps onto the global stage with at least the veneer of transparency, is a question that China, and the rest of the world, will now have to contend with.