Obama, From Behind the Great Firewall

The offender was found and disconnected, and the coverage came back. Obama had Ohio. Cheers all around. Virginia was closer than it was supposed to be. I got out my own computer to browse for a few more information-peanuts—which counties were late with the returns, what was happening in the Senate. Maps within maps. On the TV, Elizabeth Dole, with her poor stiff blurry face—and why has mutilation become part of the aging process for American women?—conceded defeat.

Obama was winning, to some extent. It was time to leave the party and go get the baby. He fell asleep in the cab, and I got back on the Internet at home. News began flooding in from the U.S., through instant messaging: Virginia was called for Obama. Fox was calling the race for Obama. I tried to find a video feed from Grant Park. CNN told me my version of Flash wasn’t up to date. The Obama Web site asked me for a donation. McCain was conceding. Chinese TV again: Now CCTV International, the English channel, did have it. "…Opportunities to those who all who have the industry and will to seize it…"

Then the station cut away so that the anchor could ask a guest expert, in her BBC English, what this election might mean for China. The MSNBC player was working on my computer: "… to dine at the White House … " CCTV International threw it to a live stand-up from Arizona. The reporter was inside the Biltmore ballroom—"the place," he said, "where John McCain’s election event was originally planned." The speech had been moved outside, but he was holding his post indoors, with McCain on giant screens behind him. "As I speak, you can hear this loud noise" from outside, he said.

What had CCTV International heard from voters? It was the economy.

"They’re voting for change, they’re not happy with how things are handled in the U.S.," the reporter said.

”This is not a surprise win for Barack Obama," he said.

On the MSNBC feed, John McCain’s supporters were booing his attempts at graciousness. CCTV International went to a segment of interviews with American troops. Then a station break: the battle against SARS … the Chinese scientist who was the father of hybrid rice … the ubiquitous Liu Xiang, the record-breaking hurdler. A commercial promoted the rock formations of the Yiming Stone Forest–more impressive than the more famous Stone Forest of Yunnan.

The MSNBC folks vamped their way through lunchtime, waiting for Obama. CCTV International moved on to a financial-news program. The anchor was somebody I had met at a party. Obama appeared and gave his speech. Every now and then the image of his face would freeze, but his voice kept flowing.

Three hours later, in traffic, I saw a vendor with an armload of the Beijing Legal Evening News. Obama was on the front page. How much?

Fifty mao, my cab driver said. The vendor doubled the price: 1 RMB. I shoved the bill out the window and got the paper. Ao Ba Ma, the headline said. Meiguo Shouwei Heiren Zongtong. America’s First Black President.