Race is an insensitive issue in China. The sighting of someone who is not of the majority Han race does not stop conversation here, but sparks comments of all sorts – of surprise, wonder, bewilderment and defensiveness. Being cautious about what one says about colour or heritage in China is seen as silly and blinded.
That is not to say that talking about race in China is a dialogue suffused with respect. For example, during the late summer, Luo Jing, a resident of Shanghai of mixed-race descent (her father an African-American, her mother is Chinese) appeared on a television talent show that was seen across China. The farther Lou advanced in the contest, the louder the voices and vitriol became, especially against her mother for having slept with a black man and producing what many Chinese saw as an impure prodigy.
Only a precious few saw Lou as a contestant, instead of some sort of a specimen of an ill-fated union. Her singing voice and presence in front of the cameras were fine (although she ended up eventually losing the contest). It was her colour and ancestry that dominated the conversation online and in the streets here.
And now, Barack Obama is walking into this conversation.
Obama arrives to see a society that is increasingly self-confident about its identity and national power, and more open to debating issues. But while the rest of the world agonises over race and identity, the vast majority of Chinese know precisely who they are: they are Han, and the rest of the world is not. That world may be the source of some envy where hardware is concerned, but it is also populated with peoples who have a barbarian quality and an uncultured approach to life, according to many here.
Globalisation has shaken this simplicity somewhat – the idea of China being the centre of the world, with the rest of the globe populated by "outsiders". Yet globalisation has also tossed many Chinese back into a more strident tone of traditionalism, one that accentuates differences between nations, peoples and races instead of celebrating the sort of diversity that helped bring Obama to high office in the United States.
Many Chinese do not know what to make of Obama. That he is immediately identifiable here in China does not make his policies or views well known. Obama is as perplexing to many residents as he is popular, as many see him as a famous black person on par with Michael Jackson instead of, say, Thomas Jefferson.
Still, for more than a few Chinese, his triumph indicates a better system of selecting officials, whereby someone who is inexperienced and yet unique can rise to the top of government. For these folks, Obama is noteworthy for his sizeable talent as well as his skin colour.
Obama is a political rock star, his image emblazoned on T-shirts and bags for sale in the odd tourist shop and storefront. Those products made enough bureaucrats nervous that products bearing his face were removed from many stores, reflecting not race but the nervousness of certain cadres about his popularity relative to some Chinese officials.
And it is the Chinese government that will endeavour to dictate the discourse while Obama is here. At a press conference this past week, a foreign ministry spokesperson implored Obama to understand the Chinese position on Tibet because, in Beijing's view, the Communist party liberated Tibetans from serfdom. Obama "is a black president and understands the slavery abolition movement," the spokesperson intoned, and should therefore be sensible on such matters.
Chinese society appears to be convinced about the issue of race, and the government seems to have made up its mind on how Obama should act. It will be up to Obama to shake up that self-certainty and perhaps begin to change the contours of the conversation about race here.
Russell Leigh Moses, a professor of Chinese politics and society, teaching in Beijing.