Tue, Jun 10, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Chinese youth embrace the cult of celebrity

The riches of China's top luminaries would have been a crime in Chairman Mao's time, but now youth worship the icons

By John Leicester  /  AP , BEIJING

It will be the game of Day 1 of men’s basketball at the Beijing Olympics: China vs the US, the 21st century’s emerging superpower challenging the 20th century’s titan.

The new 18,000-seat arena is already sold out. Many will be watching for just one of the hoopsters expected on court that Aug. 10 night: Yao Ming (姚明), the 2.28m chiseled giant from Shanghai who has made it big in the NBA, China’s superstar.

Just three decades ago — a heartbeat historically but a lifetime in a country changing as fast as China — the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) allowed just one person to tower above the rest: Mao Zedong (毛澤東). As the toiling masses were made to recite, he was China’s Great Helmsman, its Great Leader (“May he live forever!”), the “Reddest Sun in our Hearts.” Propaganda posters showed Mao with a Jesus-like aura.

Had Yao played then, he never would have been allowed to get so famous, nor go play for the Houston Rockets and become an NBA All-Star. But today, China’s people, not the party, are choosing whom they worship as icons. And worship they do.

In place of the cult of personality that the party built around Mao, the Chinese are embracing a new cult: that of fame and celebrity. Mao’s portrait still gazes out across Beijing’s vast Tiananmen Square. But the revolutionary who changed the course of history is being supplanted in Chinese hearts by a firmament of music, sports and movie celebrities.

That journey from Mao to Yao speaks volumes about how China is becoming a freer place for its 1.3 billion people. To be sure, most Chinese are still reluctant to criticize their government in public for fear of arrest or police attention. But individuality, once frowned upon by the communists, is now seen as a right by young Chinese. Members of the Mao generation — unisex haircuts in proletarian blue and green overalls — were forced to bow to the supposed collective good. The cry from generation Yao is “Look at me!”

This freedom and the rise of the celebrity are outgrowths of the gradual opening of the economy and society since 1979. China was poor 30 years ago. Now, advertisers seek out celebrities for an edge in a fast-growing consumer market.

Yao takes in millions of dollars annually, endorsing everything from burgers to laptops, credit cards to sodas. Forbes magazine’s Chinese edition this year again ranked Yao as the top-earning star in China, estimating that he rakes in about US$56 million.

Kung-fu action star Jet Li (李連杰) was second, with estimated annual earnings worth US$35 million. Such riches — which would have been a crime in Mao’s time — only enhance stars’ popularity and buy them influence, making it harder for government officials to boss them around. A giant poster of Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang (劉翔) hangs on a new clothing store in downtown Beijing, vying in size with Mao’s on Tiananmen Square.

“Now it is no problem that your poster is bigger than Mao, as long as you don’t put it in Tiananmen Square, nobody cares,” said Yue Xiaodong (岳曉東) who studies Chinese youth and idol worship as a professor at Hong Kong’s City University. “This is why the communists are getting hugely popular among young people, because they give young people hope that you can become famous, glamorous, wealthy overnight and you can be individualistic, be yourself.”

Few are better placed to measure the thirst for fame in China than “Allen” Su Xing (蘇醒).

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