An American-Politics Junkie in China

GUANGZHOU, CHINA — Inside a cramped dorm room on the campus of South China University of Technology, Yin Hao leads an operation to decode American politics.

The 29-year-old engineering student records every Sunday news show, listens to podcasts from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow as he walks to work, and scours Mike Allen’s “Playbook,” a DC-insidery newsletter for Politico. He knows more about the 2016 presidential race than many Americans.

Yin is a rare breed: a politics junkie and electoral horserace-watcher in a one-party state, where a small group of officials select the nation’s leader and the government severely restricts the press. The political process that transfixes Yin is not that of his own country, but that of someone else’s. He leads a team of hobbyists who translate and add Chinese subtitles to videos of U.S. campaign events, then distribute them via social media to a small, obsessive group of Chinese viewers.

“I have the freedom to talk about American politics,” Yin said, “so I want to use it.” Following the State of the Union address on Tuesday, he noted the two-party bickering that characterizes Washington. President Barack “Obama’s tone was a little more optimistic,” he said. “That makes for a very strange contrast to the GOP rhetoric, [which is] very much danger and terrorism.”

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The size of Yin’s group varies—up to about 20 people—as do the motivations of his colleagues and audience. Some just want to laugh at America’s unusual cast of presidential candidates; others seek insight into an election that could reshape the world’s most crucial bilateral relationship.

It’s difficult to measure Yin’s audience. He boasts nearly 34,000 followers on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. Some of his translations show up on video-sharing platforms, and others appear on Chinese news sites. But much of China still hasn’t heard of the Republicans’ Iowa front-runner Ted Cruz, the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders, or even the inimitable real-estate magnate Donald Trump.

That may change. Many of the candidates have already turned China into an attack theme. Trump accused the communist country of manipulating its currency and stealing American jobs. New Jersey governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie declared that he would fly Air Force One over disputed islands in the South China Sea, and counter Chinese hacking attempts with “cyberwarfare like they have never seen it before.” Another Republican contender, Carly Fiorina, proclaimed China “a rising adversary,” and on the Democratic side Hillary Clinton blasted the country on human-rights issues, calling some of its actions “inexcusable.”

Chinese officials have largely avoided commenting on the rhetoric, even if they do keep track. An op-ed in the Global Times, a state-run newspaper, said Trump’s initial popularity was “based on his big mouth” and chided Clinton for using the same kinds of “ignominious shenanigans” Trump was employing toward China.

“What they say in campaigns is one thing,” said Song Yuhang, an international news editor at a Chinese media outlet. “If elected into office, they will become more realistic.”

Either way, the election’s outcome will impact China. Writing subtitles is as close as Yin gets to participating in a political process where candidates woo the public for votes and the media reports on every move. His efforts underscore the gulf between the system he observes and the one he inhabits—the first where potential leaders spend millions (or billions) attacking each other, and the second where vocal competition among politicians almost never occurs in public, because the public lacks any real voice.

When I met him in December, Yin wanted details about my past experience as a Washington reporter covering national politics. How do journalists get information from the White House? Why do presidential candidates visit small towns and shake hands? What purpose do the Iowa caucuses really serve? Had I met Chuck Todd?

“U.S. elections are like Real Housewives without throwing wine or slapping each other in the face,” Yin said. “It’s pretty much the same, just a verbal slap.”

Yin Hao (Jessica Meyer)

It’s somewhat fitting that Yin developed an interest in America’s political system through its entertainment value, largely by watching The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. (Chinese people have access to little criticism of their own country, but can easily download swipes at America.)

Yin only started campaign-related translations last spring—in the midst of a doctoral thesis on 3D printing—when Sanders announced his candidacy and it felt to Yin like the race had officially begun. Now he spends most of his free time, up to five hours a day, curating clips from political speeches to campaign commercials. With limited hours and reams of material, he chooses which interviews and rallies merit translations. Yin, even unintentionally, acts as a filter for the information his fans view.

While he often works alone, Yin realized this fall that he needed assistance to tackle debates. China has in recent years seen the emergence of a volunteer translator subculture—some members of which operate in a gray area of copyright legality. Many provide Chinese subtitles for television shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards on the Internet. Yin came across an informal online subtitle group that focused on documentaries, joined it, and recruited some of its members to concentrate on U.S. politics.

One morning in November, Yin was among a half-dozen or so people who started translating the first 40 minutes of a Democratic debate, carefully matching time sequences and throwing in subtitles. When they finished, Yin put the video on Weibo and went to bed. The group interacted online; most have never met. Its members come and go, but Yin’s goal remains the same.

“I want to create a place so everyone can watch the original stuff,” he said during a late dim sum breakfast next to the campus’s emerald lake. “So you can judge for yourself.”

Yin found a gem in Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who appealed to viewers that might not otherwise have taken to American presidential politics, because he appeared to bridge entertainment and news. Yin echoed his mother’s sentiment to me: “I am now watching an American TV show called Election.”

Guo Xiaohui, a former car importer and translator turned standup comic, put it more bluntly.

“This election has become really weird,” he said. “Look at the founding fathers. It’s reverse evolution from Thomas Jefferson to Donald Trump.”

Part of Trump’s draw is simple fascination in a country where politicians are rarely flamboyant and few show public displays of emotion. Chen Yue, who sometimes works on translations with Yin, came up with the now-popular Chinese nickname for Trump: chuang po, or “broken bed.” (The phrase pops up all over social media.) A play on the tones of Trump’s Chinese name, the term suggests shoddy construction. Some interpret it sexually—not in a positive way.

“I just wanted to make a funny name for him to describe that his hotel isn’t good,” Chen, an amicable Beijing pharmacist, explained. Chen started subtitling because she wanted a way to practice her English and loved Jon Stewart’s ability to poke fun at politics. “Perhaps because we don’t have Facebook or Twitter we have the feeling that we want to see more of the world,” she said of those in her country who watch and create videos on American politics. Both social networks are blocked in China.

Yin himself is an unlikely practitioner. He grew up in an industrial town in Northwest China, where he frequently skipped English classes. He chose Germany for his master’s degree and studied communication technology. His cubicle at the university in Guangzhou holds a 3D banana he printed, and a picture of his mother.

Watching the ups and downs of U.S. campaigns—who’s “winning” in the polls at any given moment, who won the last debate—is “like watching a sport,” he said. “Someone wins, someone loses, and after a few news cycles, everyone forgets.”

In my discussions with him, Yin didn’t dwell on comparisons between the American and Chinese systems. And yet he operates in a world that constantly reminds him of the difference. Censors last year removed from Weibo a speech he translated by Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio that pummeled China’s human-rights record. Certain phrases—“enough is enough,” “Glass-Steagall Act,” or “feel the Bern”—just don’t translate. He stumbles over tax-code discussions and linguistic nuances, like the difference between “rival” and “enemy.” The influx of money into American elections, Yin said, looks to some like “open bribery.”

But Yin keeps trying to makes sense of America’s presidential race and how the country chronicles it. He invoked the Chinese Communist Party motto of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to describe what he’s witnessing from half a world away. “It’s American democracy with American characteristics.”

The Democrats’ ISIS Dilemma

The debate about ISIS since the Paris attacks has largely been driven by Republicans. Republican governors (as well as one Democrat) have asked the Obama administration not to send refugees to their states, while national Republicans have called on the president to end refugee resettlement altogether. Meanwhile, hawkish GOP candidates have put forth military plans. Jeb Bush on Wednesday called for a ground force in Syria to defeat ISIS and end the civil war there. Senator Lindsey Graham somewhat grandiosely announced, “I’m going to introduce an authorization to use Military Force against ISIL that is not limited by Time, Geography or Means.” Democrats have been mostly reactive: They know they’re (generally) against turning away refugees, and against ground troops. But what are they for?

Democratic Candidates on ISIS: Do What Obama Is Doing, but More

The two leading Democratic candidates will have a chance to seize the initiative on Thursday. At 10:30 a.m., Clinton is delivering a speech in New York on how to defeat ISIS. Later that day, at 2 p.m.Bernie Sanders is delivering a long-anticipated speech at Georgetown University on what “Democratic Socialism” is, but his campaign indicated he would also discuss “how the world community can defeat the Islamic State.”

They don’t have much choice but to address ISIS: It’s the topic du jour. But there are also good reasons they’ve been reluctant. Watching Republican debates, you get the sense that the candidates want to turn any question about domestic policy into a terrorism answer. With the Democrats, it’s the reverse. Just take Sanders’s opening statement at Saturday’s debate, in which he pivoted in his third sentence:

Well, John, let me concur with you and with all Americans who are shocked and disgusted by what we saw in Paris yesterday. Together, leading the world this country will rid our planet of this barbarous organization called ISIS. I’m running for president because as I go around this nation I talk to a lotta people. And what I hear is people concerned that the economy we have is a rigged economy.

The positive incentive to turn toward domestic issues is clear. If the economy is good, most forecasting models suggest it will help Democrats in 2016. They’d much rather talk about that. But the negative incentives for each of the two leading candidates to try to deflect the conversation are compelling, too.

First, start with Sanders. The Vermont senator’s campaign was widely reported to be upset when CBS decided, in the wake of the Paris attacks, to switch the focus of the debate to foreign policy. (Aides downplayed the disagreement.) Sanders has spent months—or really, decades—perfecting a message about how the American economy is rigged to benefit the rich, and how the United States needs to increase taxes on the wealthy, improve social services, and safeguard civil liberties. It’s a message that has resonated with a sizable portion of the electorate.

But that message of redistribution doesn’t directly offer any indication of how to approach a transnational terrorist group with a radical religious ideology—Marx didn’t say much about foreign policy, and radical anti-imperialism is not a winning strategy in a U.S. presidential election. Throughout his career, Sanders has taken a fairly standard progressive line on foreign policy. He opposed the war in Iraq, but voted in favor of American interventions in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, following September 11. (Some lefties look at his record as dangerously hawkish, in fact.) He can say he’s against ground troops, but what is he for? Any discussion of these questions takes him away from both his comfort zone and his core political causes.

Clinton’s problem is the opposite: She’s been extremely involved in American foreign policy. This has not turned out to be the asset she clearly hoped it would be. During the 2008 Democratic primary, her vote in favor of the Iraq war played an important role in her loss to Barack Obama, but this cycle was supposed to be different. Now, though, renewed discussion of sending American troops into the Fertile Crescent serves as an unpleasant reminder of that episode. Meanwhile, her later career as secretary of state isn’t looking like the crowning achievement she would like. She has struggled to name a top achievement of her tenure, and been bedeviled by ongoing investigations into her email system while secretary.

Talking about ISIS inevitably raises uncomfortable questions about the Obama administration’s handling of the group while she was the nation’s top foreign-policy official. As John Dickerson asked her at the Democratic debate, “So you’ve got prescriptions for the future. But how do we know if those prescriptions are any good if you missed it in the past?” Her answer was steady: The U.S. was restricted by an agreement with Iraq negotiated by President Bush; and she had suggested more aid for moderate rebels. Finally, she said, “But I don’t think that the United States has the bulk of the responsibility. I really put that on Assad and on the Iraqis and on the region itself.”

All of that may be true, but voters are unlikely to find it a very satisfying answer. There is widespread consensus that President Obama’s approach to ISIS is not adequate or successful. Clinton can offer good reasons why other options are no better, but she has not yet articulated a clear vision for what should be done. Making matters worse is the pinch of public opinion; in a poll released Monday, Americans said they wanted the U.S. to do more to deal with ISIS, but they also didn’t want a ground invasion.

On Thursday, both Sanders and Clinton will take a shot at articulating that positive vision for what to do—without, presumably, deploying ground troops. But it’s a good bet that both would rather be talking about something else.