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David Wertime

Chinese Web Users Watch the “Hollywood Drama” of Fiscal Cliff Negotiations

Speaker of the House John Boehner has his work cut out for him. (Talk Radio News Service/Flickr)

With the world watching, the United States government may just have stepped back from the brink. After a whirlwind of last-minute bargaining, the U.S. Senate did its part to avert the so-called self-imposed “fiscal cliff” with an early morning vote on January 1, 2013. Only time will tell whether the House of Representatives passes the measure as well. A dive off the proverbial cliff could plunge the U.S. economy, not to mention the world economy, back into recession.

Given the stakes, it’s not surprising that some users on Sina Weibo, China’s pre-eminent micro-blogging platform, were intrigued. A recent search for “fiscal cliff” in Chinese (财政悬崖) yielded over 476,000 recent comments. That is not a high number given the hundred-million-plus posts issued on Sina Weibo every day, but the comments nonetheless provide a valuable window into how one of the U.S.’ largest trading partners views this high-stakes game of fiscal chicken.

Politics as usual

By and large, Weibo users approached the problem with a familiar mixture of humor and cyncism. Across comment threads, many reacted as a majority of Americans have–decrying the faux crisis as a manufactured political “show,” a “performance by the two parties.” Perhaps most vividly, @羽林踏雪 declared it a “rotten Hollywood drama.”

Like any “rotten” performance, the fiscal cliff showdown seemed to Weibo users to lack suspense, with its resolution “just a matter of time.” @司徒柳桂 wrote, “It was always going to pass; the Americans always play out Hollywood plots where the lead is saved at the very last second.” @谢天添Narada added, “They are playing every time; eventually everyone gets sick of watching and doesn’t get anxious about it.”@一隅运筹 wrote, “I never thought they’d actually fall [off the cliff], although I wanted to see it. Haha.”

Indeed, a number of users simply laughed. @许泰毓不能服输 wrote he was “laughing so hard I’m speechless,” while @草莓奶茶爸 marveled, “People in the U.S. government are really laughable.”

The cleanup begins at home

But a twin strain of cynicism ran in the other direction, lambasting mainstream news outlets in China for focusing too much on America’s troubles, much as a far larger contingent of Web users had done after Chinese media appeared to downplay the school massacre at Guangshan in favor of reporting on the U.S. school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut just hours later.

The normally conservative Global Times (@环球时报) provided an unexpected counterpoint, linking to a Guangzhou Daily  interview with former Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Li Zhaoxing. In response to a question about the “fiscal cliff,” Ambassador Li told the Daily, “We should worry less about the United States, and think more about our own issues.” Weibo comments to the article were highly supportive, with many repeating the Chinese saying, “One should first sweep the snow from in front of one’s own door.” The refrain is often used to counter Western critics of Chinese human rights violation with a call for non-interference, but readers in this case took a different lesson.

User @吾是笑萨旯 wrote, “What’s most important now is for us to think about our own business. The U.S., Japan, and also Europe are not things that we Chinese will ever have to manage. We need to be thinking, how can we solve the deficit in social security? How can China’s economy keep moving forward? How can we control inflation, prices for goods and housing? How can we make society safe and stable, how can we make sure commoners can live harmoniously and in peace; these are the major issues that government authorities need to be concerned about.”

With so many pressing issues at home, commenters evinced little patience for the views of the state-run China Central Television (CCTV)’s official Weibo account (@央视评论员). CCTV wrote, “2013 is already here, and the U.S. has in fact already fallen off of the fiscal cliff. … It’s fallen but not died, because the ‘fiscal cliff” is merely a special way of saying ‘no money is in my pocket.’ There are no other ways for [the U.S.] to save itself other than raising taxes and cutting spending.”

Weibo users were dismissive or outright hostile in response. @堪萨斯BBQ wrote, “In your mouth, China’s always good, the outside is always lacking” while @爱咖啡更爱茶 asked, “CCTV commenters, when will learn not to puff yourself up, always watching goings-on elsewhere?”

Globalization, for better or worse

It is, of course, a tall order to ask Chinese–or Americans–not to pay attention to the giant, economically influential nation on the other side of the globe, particularly when their economies are so tightly linked. A number of users noted that the U.S. could “always borrow money from China” in response to its problems, while @chszxy opined, “The essence of the U.S. fiscal cliff is an inability to make ends meet, which is unsustainable in the long term. In the short term, the U.S. will not lack for money, because they can always fire up the printing press.”

Some could not help but compare domestic policies to American ones. When an account for state-run Xinhua news agency (@新华视点) noted the Senate’s agreement to raise tax rates on the rich from 35% to 39.6%, commenters asked why China could not do the same. @西湖常客 complained, “China is a socialist country, so why are taxes on the wealthy higher in capitalist countries?” @大勇的美好生活 asked, “Why doesn’t China raise the tax rates on the mine bosses, the nouveau riche, the mansion owners, the luxury car owners, the private planes owners, the yacht owners?” The complaints are apocryphal–China levies a 45% income tax on high earners, according to accounting firm and consultancy Deloitte–and likely reflect a general sense in China that wealth inequality has gotten too extreme.

With inequality in China rising and the U.S. continuing to teeter under the Damocles’ sword of congressional inaction, @真哥 offered a humorous retort to those calling for critics to stand down, one commonplace among Web users angry about Chinese officials’ increasing propensity to send their assets–and their families–abroad: “To worry about the U.S. is to worry about our leaders and their relatives.” Americans can only hope that no one will have to worry too much longer.

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.