Chinese have long been fascinated with U.S. presidential elections, but interest is particularly high this year because Americans are voting at the same time Beijing is going through its own political transition. A generation of Communist Party leaders will step down next week to make way for younger colleagues after a highly secretive selection process.
For many ordinary Chinese, comparisons are irresistible.
In a political cartoon circulated online, an American voter covers his ears as the candidates verbally attack each other on TV, while a Chinese man struggles to hear anything from the party congress, taking place behind closed doors.
"Every political system has its pros and cons, but I do think it will be great if I get to participate and get to make a decision after the candidates tell me what their platforms are for the next four years," said Guo Xiaoqiao, a freelance worker in human resources.
Chinese delight in speculating whether President Barack Obama will fend off Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but they are more captivated by Americans' ability to vote for their leader. Their own leaders are distant figures whom they have no way of replacing.
"The 18th Party Congress is a meeting for the party. We ordinary people can only watch it as an audience," said Wang Xiaojian, a 21-year-old Peking University student. "The U.S. presidential election is a campaign that gets everyone involved."
As Gao, a pop singer and musician known for his syrupy ballads, found out, many Chinese are even interested in the U.S. Electoral College, the often perplexing system in which the president is elected not by individual votes, but by the candidates' state-by-state performance.
In a video from his online talk show that was posted on the popular video-sharing site Youku.com, Gao explained that the college is an attempt to balance the rights of states with the will of the majority.
"The opinion of the state is important; so is that of the people," Gao said. He called America's founding fathers the "greatest group of people in history."
As a public performer used to censorship, Gao was careful not to draw direct comparisons to China's system or its leaders. But even explaining America's election system is more than what Chinese get from state media.
For decades, China's public knowledge of U.S. elections was limited to state propaganda, which depicts the election as a money game controlled by Wall Street. Campaign finance scandals and vote fraud dominate coverage. Even if Chinese don't wholly believe it, the repetitive line of state media has an impact on how they view U.S. politics.
"The coverage is to serve the internal propaganda needs but not explain how the U.S. election works," said Chinese media critic Zhao Chu. "You hardly see any reports that can clearly explain how the U.S. election works."
The less-censored Internet has changed the game, giving Chinese space to comment and exchange opinions. Videos of the presidential debates are available online.
Censorship on the U.S. election has mostly been in form of guidance from censors. State media have been told to play down reports on the election and keep them short and factual, according to editors at two media outlets.
Amateur translator Guo Xiaohui, who has produced Chinese captions of this year's presidential and vice presidential debates, said an unfiltered look at American politics may gradually influence the thinking of people living with censorship. He also said it shows not everything in the U.S. system is positive.
"The two sides are very confrontational and uncompromising," he said. "It would be better off if they can soften a bit, like the Chinese do."
Others see the U.S. system as clearly superior.
"I admire the voting rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. I pay attention to the fairness and seriousness in the election procedure," said Li Youli, a retired manager in a commerce regulatory agency in Beijing who learned about U.S. elections through an English language class.
"China's political system is so backward that it should implement one thing first: to unconditionally ensure the basic political right for citizens in a republic: the voting rights," he said.
Admiration for the U.S. political system does not necessarily extend to the U.S. itself. U.S.-China relations have been buffeted by tiffs over trade, nuclear proliferation and global hotspots like Syria and Iran. Romney has promised to label China a currency manipulator if elected, a step that could lead to a trade war between the world's two largest economies.
Many Chinese resent what they see as scolding by U.S. presidents, politicians and media about China's human rights lapses and its authoritarian system.
A Pew Global Attitudes Project survey released last month found that nearly half of Chinese have a negative view of the United States. Still, the survey registered a small increase among Chinese who like American democracy, up to 52 percent, from 48 percent in 2007. More dramatic was a decrease in Chinese rejecting American democracy, down to 29 percent from 36 percent in 2007.
Xu Chunliu, a content editor for the microblogging site Tencent Weibo, said he has observed little criticism of the U.S. election system among Chinese web users.
"I don't think Chinese people are holding their own political system in such high esteem that they feel they can criticize others," said Xu.
He added that even being able to have conversations about voting and democracy is a positive step.
"From the Taiwan election to the U.S. election, the Chinese are always thinking and debating among themselves," Xu said. "I think China is developing into a more normal country."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)