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By Steve Kelman

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China's many contradictions

It is impossible to spend time in China without the noticing the many contradictions at the heart of this amazing country.

Like this experience: Taking the subway in Shanghai during my first day in China, I watched a TV screen in the subway car that first showed grainy black-and-white film of Communist rebel soldiers fighting Japanese and domestic enemies, which ran in honor of the recent 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, followed immediately by a color ad for Wrigley Spearmint Gum. I was the only passenger paying attention to either one.

Or visiting the newly reopened National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square during my second day in Beijing, billed as the largest museum in the world. In the large center hall in the middle of the museum, with imposing walls and high ceilings, is a series of giant socialist realist paintings of Mao Zedong standing on mountaintops and talking with workers and peasant soldiers. Right next to this hall — 20 feet away — is the entrance to a temporary exhibition at the museum on the history of the Louis Vuitton brand, sponsored by the company. The exhibits seemed about equally crowded.

The interface between China and the West continues to take newer, interesting forms. There was an article in China Daily about Chinese product placements in Hollywood films! Apparently a Chinese milk company succeeded in placing their Shuhua milk brand in the new movie Transformers 3, including a line where a character says, "May I finish my Shuhua milk?" The line gets laughs from American audiences, according to the article. The article explained that such product placement efforts were a gamble given that only 20 American movies are allowed in China each year, and an investment in product placement for a movie not released there would be wasted. Another article in the same paper discussed a growing trend for Westerners to shop for "fashion bargains" — knockoffs?? — on Chinese websites.

The International Herald Tribune has suddenly started appearing in major Chinese hotels — a day late because it's not printed in China — and even in the business class lounge of Air China. A Chinese businessman told me it has been available in China for years and that if hotels hadn't had it before, that was only because they didn't want to pay the money. But its sudden, simultaneous appearance at so many places suggests to me a breakthrough that I don't understand.

Also, since my last visit, China Daily has developed a Sunday supplement called "Sunday Life," based on articles from the New York Times. But unlike the Times supplements appearing in a number of other newspapers around the world, this one has only lifestyle stories from the paper, no politics. And the Times continues to be available online inside China, with articles critical of China, unblocked.

Posted on Aug 02, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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Reader comments

Thu, Aug 18, 2011 Ian Ouyang

Contradiction, in China, we call it "mao-dun".In ancient China, mao is the spear which can stab into everything and dun is the shield which can defence from any pierce. But what happened if we use this mao to stab this dun -- that is how the word "maodun" comes from. In fact, Chinese people live in this situation all the time: we wanna do something but always something holds us back. In this way, we make a lot of interesting sights for you. of course they are not all the good things though.

Tue, Aug 2, 2011 AZ

I don't think the NYT articles criticle of China were blocked. But it was true that the article about the jasmine revolution at Wangfujing was blackout for some hours on the day. BTW, the angle of this blog is interesting. The contradictions make Chinese people have very ambivelant feelings when they stay in their own coutry. FYI, the Gao Tie Shi Gu has no longer on the Hot Topic List on Weibo since last weekend...it's gone...

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