China Has Changed US Expats’ Views, But Not Their Votes
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2016-09-27 10:46:19

This weekend, American expats turned up in droves at Shanghai’s Boxing Cat Brewery, not only to enjoy the selection of cold beers, but also to register for absentee ballots in the upcoming U.S. election.

Unable to cast ballots until 1975, Americans living abroad now play a decisive role in determining who will lead the country. And since 1976, the Democratic Party has given its overseas members a voice in choosing their nominee.

Democrats Abroad, whose volunteers hosted the event, are recognized as a “state” for primary voting purposes, having 21 delegates up for grabs — a number similar to those contributed by states like Wyoming or Alaska toward the 2,472 majority needed to receive the nomination. The Republican Party, meanwhile, seeks input from its overseas members in an unofficial capacity through an online straw poll.

Volunteers from Democrats Abroad hold a voter registration event for overseas U.S. citizens at Boxing Cat Brewery in Shanghai. Xiao Muyi/Sixth Tone

Shawn Kozel, a 33-year-old teacher from Michigan, said that moving to China had shifted his focus away from purely domestic issues. “If I had never moved abroad, I wouldn’t be so concerned about international politics,” he said, adding that at six years, he’s been in China long enough to realize the importance of the global picture.

Some prospective voters said that with their status as unofficial ambassadors of all things American came a greater sense of responsibility for U.S. policies. “Being international in any capacity makes you look at how other people view your country’s politics and America’s role on the global stage,” said Katharine Enoch, a 32-year-old teacher from New York.

Spencer Dodington said he understands why most people in the U.S. vote for a candidate according to their domestic platform, but that as a long-term expat, he was more likely to consider how a candidate could help him in his current context as his primary motivation in voting.

“I think today we need to engage with the planet, engage with China,” said the 48-year-old architect from Texas. “These two candidates are both anti-engaging with China, so I’m not very happy about that.”

These two candidates are both anti-engaging with China, so I’m not very happy about that.

Despite admittedly seeing things differently after several years, or even decades, in China, none of the people Sixth Tone interviewed said that living abroad had made them reconsider whom they would vote for in the coming election. However, when asked how they felt about the election’s two main candidates — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — several expressed frustration at having to choose from “a lose-lose situation,” “the lesser of two evils,” or, referring additionally to third-party candidate Gary Johnson, “three losers.”

While Clinton seemed to hold little appeal to the would-be voters, it was the possibility of a Trump presidency that raised unanimous concern, especially in terms of the future of the U.S.’s relationship with China. Enoch said that given Trump’s lack of diplomacy, and the fact that the leaders of the world’s two largest economies don’t always see eye to eye, the prospect of disagreement between two authoritarian governments was a scary one.

Kozel went a step further, saying flatly, “International relations with most countries would be poor if Trump were elected.” He added that he would hate to see eight years of good — “good, not great” — diplomacy under current President Barack Obama “go down the tubes.”

Michael Wert, a 30-year-old education consultant from Pennsylvania, had unequivocal opinions about Trump, some based on self-preservation: “I like living in a world devoid of nuclear war, and since I don’t trust Donald Trump not to start a nuclear war, it basically comes down to not wanting radiation poisoning and vaporization for myself or my loved ones.”

Asked if there was anything else he found objectionable about the Republican nominee, Wert added, “The racism, the xenophobia, the misogyny, the homophobia, the until very recently denying that our current president was born in the country — basically everything about him I find repellent.”

Wert, who works with “outward-looking, cosmopolitan, globally minded [Chinese] young people” who hope to attend university in the U.K. or North America but are nonetheless brought up under a national curriculum that espouses “random views” about contentious issues such as territorial sovereignty, said that he feels “cautiously optimistic” about the long-term future of Sino-U.S. relations.

Echoing these sentiments, Nathan Anderson, a 34-year-old software engineer from Vermont, suggested that the chief impediment for stable relations between the two superpowers — the invariable and the ascendant — was nationalism, both in China, with its young generation of “Di Ba” and “little pinko” patriots, and in the U.S., home to Trump fervor and the jingoistic “Make America Great Again” movement.

“I think nationalism in general is the greatest threat to ties between the U.S. and China,” said Anderson, “because that’s the domino that starts everything else falling.”

(Header image: A promotional poster for the voter registration event held at Boxing Cat Brewery in Shanghai, Sept. 24, 2016. Xiao Muyi/Sixth Tone)

With contributions from Sarah O’Meara.