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America From Abroad : Mickey Mouse Leads U.S. Rebound in Beijing : Positive images of the United States are popping up throughout China amid renewed cultural ties. Comic books top the comeback list.

July 13, 1993|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — Mickey Mouse is back.

The geopolitical implications of the Disney character's return to China may not be obvious. But his comeback, in the form of 60,000 comic books that went on sale last month, is more than just good news for Chinese children. It also reflects a renewed growth of grass-roots U.S. cultural ties to China.

Despite continuing tensions over issues of political repression, trade policy and arms proliferation, the desire for good relations with the United States extends through all levels of Chinese society.

"I would like to reiterate that we want to see more mutual confidence, less trouble, closer cooperation and no confrontation between us," President Jiang Zemin said in remarks quoted by the official New China News Agency in May. "We hope China and the United States can work together to improve and develop our relations."

Positive images of the United States are extremely widespread among ordinary Chinese. The United States is the most favored destination for Chinese who study abroad. Recent months have seen repeated incidents in which ordinary peasants and workers, dreaming of richer lives in America, have endured risky ocean voyages in the hope of slipping illegally onto U.S. shores.

For those who stay behind, American television shows, purchased and rebroadcast by Chinese networks, bring an exotic look into another way of life. Information also comes from books, magazines and newspapers. Growing numbers of people have direct contact with Americans, and nearly everyone has at least some ideas about what life in the United States must be like.

"Americans and Chinese, these two nationalities are compatible," said a 28-year-old Beijing businessman who wished to be identified only by his surname, Wang. "China is very old and America is very new. Each has something that the other lacks. China likes America for the same reason that an old person likes a baby. It has something new and fresh."

Wang said he sees three characteristics of Americans that he especially appreciates: "Try it. Enjoy yourself. It is none of your business."

The appeal of U.S. mass culture, while not directly political, has a subversive quality within Chinese society. Widespread images of rich and free life in the United States and other Western nations puts additional pressure on the Communist government to focus on economic development and tolerate a relaxation of social controls.

At another level, growing international contacts press Beijing to gradually adapt to international standards in various fields.

Even Mickey Mouse's return has serious roots. In the late 1980s, "The Mickey and Donald Show," with cartoons dubbed into Chinese, was one of the most popular programs on television here. But it set off a wave of unauthorized reproductions of likenesses of Disney characters, and the company pulled out of China in 1989.

Mickey is back because Beijing, faced with pressure from Washington, agreed last year to beef up protection of intellectual property rights. This led first to the announcement of a joint-venture project to produce Disney-character consumer goods. Then came the 20-page color comics.

Walt Disney Co. (Hong Kong) Ltd. announced recently that it is negotiating for the return of Mickey and Donald to Chinese airwaves late this year. The goal for the monthly comic, according to the company, is for circulation to hit 1 million within four years.

One of the U.S. television shows that has had the greatest impact here is "Dynasty." An American woman who formerly taught English in the northeastern city of Harbin recalled how she spent an entire year trying to convince her friends that the show's glitzy portrayal of U.S. life was unrealistic.

"While playing badminton with a retired professor one evening, he asked me if I had seen an American movie on television the previous night that, as he said, clearly depicted the American reality," the woman recalled. "He explained that it was a series and I could catch it the next week. I couldn't believe it--when I turned on the TV, the show was 'Dynasty.'

" 'Dynasty' was a topic of conversation all year long in Harbin. The newspapers even ran weekly articles explaining the significance of each episode as if the show was reality. It was an uphill battle all the way to try to convince people that 'Dynasty' was not America. 'Dynasty' still plays on TV in Beijing. (But) most college-educated people in Beijing know it's fake."

The government now takes a largely hands-off attitude to the spread of American cultural influences. But it protests bitterly against measures taken by foreigners to pressure Beijing on human rights issues such as the imprisonment of dissidents or coercive family planning measures. Such matters, the government insists, are China's internal affairs.

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