Dragon battles back to beat
BEIJING - Easily dismissible as a
classic piece of government over-reaction, Beijing's
banning of US sportswear manufacturer Nike's latest
television advertisement - featuring a US basketball
hero trouncing dragons, a martial-arts teacher and
flying spirits - says a
lot about China's
lingering sense of victim status.
of Fear", the advertisement featured National Basketball
Association star LeBron James simultaneously dribbling
a ball while fighting off several adversaries, clearly
Asian and very possibly Chinese. In the ad, produced
using a computer-game format, James' goal was to encourage
children to learn from his own upbringing and experience
to confront life's hurdles and not run from them.
Part of a global advertising campaign, the ad
was aired nationally for more than a month before a
statement on the ban was issued on December 6 by China's
State Administration for Radio, Film and Television
(SARFT). Since the government said the ad "violates
regulations that mandate that all advertisements in
China should uphold national dignity and interest and
respect the motherland's culture", Nike (named after the
winged Greek goddess of victory) had no choice but to
admit defeat and apologize. Nike subsequently relaunched
the ad in a heavily edited format. Nike sportswear is
hugely popular, as a status symbol, in China (and shoes
and clothing also are made in that country and others),
with sales rising 66% last year to about US$300 million
and more than one store a day opening in the nation of
1.3 billion people.
With no further government
explanation offered, viewers of national and local
channels were left to make up their own minds about why
Nike's "Chamber of Fear" should have caused such
offense. There are almost a billion TV viewers in
Greater China - the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and
The answer comes in two parts. The first
is the computerized adversaries that were soundly
defeated included an ancient-looking martial arts
teacher complete with long, wispy beard, several female
spirits feitian (literally "flying heaven"
similar to Buddhist bodhisattavas), and - perhaps most
crucially - two dragons, the traditional symbol of the
Chinese nation. All the defeated adversaries are icons
closely associated with Chinese culture. The second is
that James is a black American.
Whether it would
have mattered if James were white or Asian remains a
matter of conjecture. Although not uncommon to hear
derogatory remarks or witness discriminatory actions
toward black people in China, the notion that James'
color may have influenced the government's decision was
not touched upon by the large number of Chinese and
foreign media reports on the announcement.
is certain is that in some people's eyes Nike was being
cavalier in its use of Chinese cultural icons, and
depending upon how far you take the imagery, conveying
an impression of Western cultural domination. "All the
Chinese in the advertisement were defeated, including
the dragon. This damages China's image and suggests
China is incapable," a man called Hu complained on the
Xinhua.net Internet message board.
This is not
the first time a foreign advertisement has courted
controversy. Against the backdrop of prickly
Sino-Japanese relations, Toyota made headlines last year
after an ad featured Chinese lion statues bowing their
heads in respect to the auto maker's latest model.
Experts suggest that the country's historical
relationship with foreign powers has made China
sensitive to any suggestions that it and its culture are
inferior. Further, Japan's invasion of China, the
Nanjing Massacre and other brutalities make China
extremely sensitive to suggestions of Japanese
"When you take this advert, some
people will look at it from the point of view of
comparative status. LeBron James represents America and
the computerized characters represent China," Feng
Cheng, the organizer of a Beijing club that promotes
Chinese culture to foreigners, told Asia Times Online.
"When two people of the same economic
standing tell jokes about each other, it does not matter,
as might be the case among Western countries. But when
a rich man makes fun of a poor farmer in front of
him, then the farmer loses face. All the farmer has is
self-respect, and that is now being taken away," Feng said.
Although China is an economic giant and
a major player in international diplomacy today, the
lessons of Chinese history paint a different picture of
China, and that different, darker image still
resonates. Typified by the infamous "no dogs" and "no Chinese"
sign that marked the entrance to an early-20th-century park in
Shanghai, Chinese history textbooks are replete with
examples of national humiliation at the hands of Western
and Japanese imperial powers. Once a rallying call for
Chinese nationalists of all political persuasions, the
lesson for today's students is clear - never let your
country suffer such indignity again.
Americans think if Chinese people made fun of Mount Rushmore,
or how would the Japanese respond if we made fun
of Mount Fuji?" asked the Beijing Xinjing Bao (New
Capital Newspaper) in an editorial about the decision to ban the
Nike ad. Much to the Xinjing Bao editor's surprise, the
answer would be that very few, if any, Americans
would take offense if a Chinese company such
as Haier, the nation's biggest appliance maker that has
cornered the US market in mini-fridges, were to use images of US presidents
to help sell more mini-fridges - US companies have
probably already done it.
"I think that the fact
the US does not suffer from an implicit inferiority
complex may have had a part to play when this advert was
designed," said John Lombard, chief cultural consultant
with New Leaders International, a company that helps
people overcome cultural barriers. However, Lombard also
told Asia Times Online that in addition to cultural and
historical factors, the government's criticism of the
Nike ad should fall within a wider political context. TV
presenters' skimpy wardrobes, violent video games, and a
scheduled but never aired sex talk show, Masks
(in which participants discuss their sexual experiences
and problems), all recently have run afoul of the
government media watchdog agency. This indicates that
the reaction to the "Chamber of Fear" could be part of a
broader effort to enforce a more rigorous code of
conduct on media operators, Lombard said.
However, not all viewers
supported the government's response. Soon after the
official announcement, online chat rooms posted many mixed
opinions, perhaps reflecting a gap between
a younger, computer games-playing demographic (at whom
the advertisement was targeted), and an older generation.
Some denounced the ban as an affront to free expression and others
condemned the Nike ad itself as an affront to Chinese culture.
incident is unlikely to cause long-term damage for Nike,
which runs a powerful nationwide marketing campaign to
promote its "cool" image, the company can perhaps take
comfort from the notion that there is supposed to be no
such thing as bad publicity.
Robertson is a freelance writer based in
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