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Why Chinese actually envy the US government shutdown

A Chinese boy waves a national flag together with a US flag.
Goh Chai Hin | AFP | Getty Images
A Chinese boy waves a national flag together with a US flag.

Perhaps the only people who have managed to find a silver lining in the ongoing U.S. government shutdown are Chinese intellectuals.

Of course, Americans view the impasse as a sign of political dysfunction. But to many Chinese commentators, it also reveals certain strengths. Since the shutdown began nine days ago, Chinese social media have been full of wistful, almost admiring remarks about how the shutdown could only happen in a democratic country with a resilient economy and responsive political representation.

(Read more: Six more weeks of shutdown? No problem, says pro)

"The government's closed — is this bad?" wrote Chen Zhiwu, a user on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo. "In the American system, arguments among Republicans and Democrats and the president are normal and should happen because levying taxes, incurring debts, and paying expenses involves the taxpayer's interests and their money. So, elected representatives and the president should not treat these things lightly. To take these matters seriously is their responsibility and duty."

Many posts discussed how such a shutdown could never happen in China, because the country would immediately be plunged into chaos. The fact that many state and local government functions have continued despite the shutdown was a particular object of marvel. One Chinese author who resides in the U.S. expressed wonder that "in the days since the government closed, everybody is unconcerned."

"The reason is simple," he continued. "Just because the federal government shut down, that doesn't mean the local government is shut down. The various levels of government do not depend on each other." Alluding to Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," he concluded that "by understanding local autonomy, you understand America."

(Read more: Wall Street sinking under weight of shutdown, debt ceiling)

Others wrote almost enviously of how China's one-party system could never permit such radical disagreement and open debate as is seen between the Republicans and the Democrats.

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"The dispute between the two parties is bound to cause friction," one user wrote. By contrast, "the Chinese government easily takes millions [of yuan] of taxpayers' hard-earned money and goes abroad to buy luxurious houses, and their only problem is when they run into the poor."

The real subjects of these posts, of course, is not the U.S., but China.

(Read more: If US defaults, will China bail on Treasurys?)

Just as Americans often use China as a foil to reflect on their country's strengths and weaknesses, Chinese use America in the same way. In the U.S., people like Thomas Friedman point to the unity and authority of China's single-party state to criticize America's political friction. In China, they point to the shutdown to criticize China's lack of an independent civil society and balanced distribution of power.