Shanghai has caught the Obama fever.
Scheduled to make a grand appearance in the Chinese mainland's most cosmopolitan city on Monday during his first visit to China, US President Barack Obama is revered by young people here as much for his superstar appeal as the leader of the world's sole superpower.
Souvenirs bearing the president's image, T-shirts, notebooks, badges, mobile phone jackets and transport card stickers are selling by the thousands at roadside shops and online stores. Internet chatrooms are buzzing with tips on where to get a glimpse of Obama although his itinerary in Shanghai has yet to be confirmed. Speculation has it that he will be staying at the Portman Ritz Carlton hotel on Nanjing West Road and will be treated to supper at a restaurant specializing in Shanghai cuisine in the tourist area noted for the Temple of the City God. Former US president Bill Clinton was entertained at that same restaurant when he was in Shanghai.
What has really excited the young people here is the scheduled meeting with Obama. To be sure, many will miss out on this face-to-face talk but they look forward to watching live broadcasts of their idol exchanging ideas and, perhaps, a few jokes, with their peers.
Obama is idolized by Shanghai's youth because he embodies the personality and character of a leader to whom young people feel they can relate to as opposed to some stern-faced Chinese officials they have learned to dread. As Shanghai becomes an increasingly internationalized city, its people, especially those who have been exposed to Western culture, prefer people in authority who are seen to share their vision and willing to talk to them and listen to their aspirations, or complaints.
Internet blogs and chatrooms have become the most popular channels for Shanghai people to vent their frustrations in dealing with unresponsive officials in banks, phone companies, hospitals, airports, train stations and, yes, the housing estates where they live. This is no exaggeration. I read a story sometime ago in a Chinese language newspaper about a man being beaten up by the security guards of his housing estate because he reportedly refused to park his car as directed.
A Shanghai colleague and I were ordered by a uniformed guard to get out of a taxi line at the front door of a downtown office building because we failed to prove we were guests of a tenant there. Seeing no point in arguing with her and not wanting to bother our host, we walked to the street and got into a taxi that was going to make the turn into the building's driveway to pick up the passengers waiting in the line we just left. We evened the score.
But at times like these, I wonder how people in Shanghai feel about such official arrogance. The Obama factor has made it clear that many Shanghai people, especially the younger ones, feel just as indignant as I am about authoritarian excesses. Most of the complaints I have heard on radio and read in the local newspapers and on the Internet are directed at minor officials who have to deal on a daily basis with the public. But such dissatisfaction must reflect badly on the city's bureaucracy as a whole.
When you go to a hospital after work as I did for treatment of a worsening cold/fever and was told by the nurse, who didn't even raise her head as she talked, that all doctors were off duty, you'd understand why Obama's image as an approachable and understanding leader holds so much appeal in this city.