Hillary Clinton visited  China earlier this year (that is in 2009, ed) at a time when fewer young people are looking West for political ideals, when American-style capitalism is typically blamed for the global financial crisis, and when foreign firms have lost their shine.

This attitude shift means that building a more mature U.S.-China relationship and broaching issues like global warming and human rights will require even deeper engagement.

Most of my students seem surprisingly immune to Obama mania.

That may be because relations between China and the United States have been steady since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, largely because the Bush administration turned its attention away from China and toward other perceived threats.

Of course, there is respect for Mr. Obama’s intellectual abilities and leadership skills. But even “liberal” students are given to skepticism. One of my graduate students told me that she was dismayed by the uncritical coverage of the inauguration, the kind of love-fest for a political leader that could only make the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party envious.

We discussed, only half-jokingly, the possibility that China should adopt some form of constitutional monarchy, so that the public could project its emotions on a symbolic leader while evaluating the de facto political leader’s performance more rationally.

For now, debate over political structures has taken a back seat to worries about the financial meltdown. China’s export-based economy has been hit hard, though there’s optimism that domestic consumers will lead the recovery. Today, the most competitive jobs are in the public sector, with tens of thousands of students competing for jobs in the civil service that offer more security.

Most students recognize that change must come, but democracy is now more often blamed for political instability and economic inefficiency. Hence, they and many intellectuals are turning to China’s own traditions for inspiration. Democracy with Chinese characteristics is still the slogan, with more debates centering on the Chinese characteristics.

The Obama administration could better connect with these groups, which have influence on political change, by showing a genuine interest in China’s culture, allowing for the possibility of morally justifiable difference and treating China as an equal with something positive to offer.

At this moment, even symbolic gestures — perhaps using a few words of Chinese in speeches addressing them — could help in that direction.


[Daniel Bell is professor of political theory at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He is the author of “China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society. This first appeared in The New York Times website on 20 February 2009 in the Room for Debate series on the issue, What the Chinese want from Obama. This was distributed in Australia through the Monarchist Alliance. ]