China's many contradictions

Steve Kelman, filing his final blog post from China, shares some jarring experiences with cultural 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.

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