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).
Life for the willowy, doe-eyed 24-year-old turned upside down when he reached the final of Superboy — an American Idol knockoff that took China by storm last summer. Fans gave him 2.5 million votes, phoned in at US$0.15 a pop, exercising a democratic right the CCP still doesn’t extend to the way China chooses its political leaders.
Su’s second place finish — winner Chen Chusheng (陳楚生) got 3.3 million votes — was enough, he hopes, to launch a music career. The former student now wears dark glasses and hats to avoid being recognized in public.
Flying back from out-of-town concerts, he finds fans waiting for him at Beijing’s airport, bearing gifts. He has three boxes in his apartment filled with thousands of fan letters, some perfumed and covered with hearts. And this before he has recorded his first album, due next year.
“There are so many people who are trying so hard to be famous,” Su said in an interview, fiddling with a bracelet of black and silver beads given to him by a fan. “We don’t want to be part of a crowd. We want others to see us as individuals.”
“In China, when someone treats you as an idol, they are searching for something that they don’t have but they can see in you,” said Su, who chose his English name Allen in admiration for NBA star Allen Iverson.
While communist officials can no longer dictate which stars make fans giddy, they do come down hard on those whom they deem to have stepped out of line.
Wang Zhizhi (王治郅) seemed destined for stardom when he became the first Chinese-born player in the NBA in 2001. But his refusal to report back for national team duties infuriated Chinese officials. Wang was kicked off the Chinese squad.
“When the motherland needed him, he did not care about what’s good for the country,” China’s Basketball Association said.
Only after a public apology in 2006 — “Please give me a chance to start again,” state media quoted him as saying — was he welcomed back. Now, with he and Yao both recovering from injuries, they could play together at the Aug. 8 to Aug. 24 Beijing Games.
Comely actress Tang Wei (湯唯) suffered official ire this year, apparently because she appeared in explicit sex scenes in Ang Lee’s (李安) award-winning spy thriller Lust, Caution. Chinese media reported in March that regulators ordered TV stations in Beijing and Shanghai to stop reporting on Tang and pull advertisements featuring the actress.
The government’s broadcasting watchdog was quoted as saying that “undressing to get famous” set a bad example for youth.
“You have to consider these things. That is the reality here ... There are a lot of people watching you,” singer Su said.
“Especially the political side,” he said. “If you really say something that you shouldn’t say, I don’t think you’re gonna have a healthy career. If they say, ‘OK we don’t want you to be on TV,’ then you cannot be on TV.”
In his 12th-floor office in a forest of new office towers in Beijing, Wang Jipeng (王吉鵬) stokes the celebrity cult as CEO and founder of iFensi.com, a Web site that is a one-stop shop for celebrity news and gossip. Launched in 2006, the site draws 2 million hits a day, “and it’s growing every day,” Wang said.
He oozes energy. By 2pm, he’s still not found time to eat. His lunch box of vegetables and rice sits untouched next to a half-filled ashtray on his cluttered desk.
The 35-year-old, who previously taught media studies at Bohai University in China’s northeast, talks with a missionary’s zeal about his venture.
“People believe in stars like they believe in God. I bring all of these little gods, these adored stars, together into one place. So you could say that iFensi.com is a Web site that sells belief,” he said.
It’s a winning formula. The site got nearly 1 million responses in 2006 when it offered to buy Valentine’s Day roses for fans’ favorite celebrities for 30 cents each. One fan sent 2,000 rose requests, and some celebrities got more than 10,000 roses.
Fan clubs are sprouting up around the country. Xiao Feng, a planning director in a public relations firm, runs one for the Superboy runner-up. Callers to her mobile phone hear a few bars from one of Su’s songs before she picks up. In her thirties — she wouldn’t give her age — Xiao got giggly when talking about him in an interview.
“With the big stars, you can only look on from afar. But with this kid, we walked with him each step of the way, from ordinary Joe to singer and perhaps, in the future, to star,” Xiao said. “We see him as a friend, as a younger brother.”
Xiao led other fans in get-out-the-vote drives last year, hitting Beijing’s streets in matching T-shirts to cajole weekend shoppers to cast ballots for Su by mobile phone. Had they been marching for democracy or human rights, police would have rounded them up in an instant. But Xiao said they had no trouble.
“We’re not causing any harm,” she said. “We get together, have meals together, go out for drinks, have fun.”
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