SHANHAIGUAN, China — Postcards can't quite capture what Michael O'Shea did on his spring break this year. The American college teacher went to China, saw the Great Wall--and inspired a mass ideological movement.
Not that he planned it. But by writing a letter to Chinese President Jiang Zemin about his trip after he got home, O'Shea touched off a government-backed campaign that has China's northeastern Hebei province--home to 66 million people--awash in a tide of Communist propaganda extolling the virtues of tourism and individual goodwill.
O'Shea, a Chinese-language professor from upstate New York, told Jiang of his pleasant experiences at a hotel run by the Hebei government and with helpful cabdrivers here in Shanhaiguan, a beach town in Hebei where the Great Wall meets the sea.
To O'Shea's surprise, Jiang took a break from running the world's most populous nation and wrote back. The Chinese leader thanked O'Shea for his letter, stressed the importance of friendly Sino-U.S. relations and said modestly that there is still room for improvement in China's booming tourist industry.
"We welcome your continued opinions and suggestions," Jiang wrote Aug. 1. "Best wishes to your wife and little daughter," he added.
The reply made it into the papers, including the front page of the Aug. 26 edition of the People's Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece. Within days, zealous party cadres in Hebei launched a full-scale ideological campaign urging the masses to study Jiang's response to O'Shea and build up Hebei's image.
The propaganda drive is reminiscent of the days of Mao Tse-tung, whose cult of personality grew so great that even his slightest utterance was pored over as if it contained the wisdom of a thousand sages.
Jiang, 75, is known to want to go down in history as a great leader in the mold of Mao and Deng Xiaoping. Cadres across China have already been ordered to study his recent directive on letting entrepreneurs join the Communist Party. Now even his brief response to a satisfied American tourist has Hebei's officials huddled in earnest contemplation.
The provincial government convened several meetings to study the brief epistolary exchange. Hebei officials spoke movingly of "the spirit" of Jiang's reply and the need to foster goodwill between the Chinese and American peoples. A government circular issued to various agencies, including the tourism and transportation bureaus, encouraged them to emulate the hotel employees and taxi drivers who showed O'Shea such a good time.
"It's not a trivial matter," Hebei Gov. Niu Maosheng told a special Aug. 30 forum titled "Studying President Jiang Zemin's Return Letter to the American Tourist," according to a local paper. "Governments at all levels and all industries should deeply understand the profound meaning of 'Everyone represents the image of Hebei.' "
The five cabbies whom O'Shea complimented in his letter have become overnight heroes, celebrities so sought after by politicians and the media that none has had time to bother with picking up passengers for more than a week.
Instead, their schedules are booked with accepting honors, posing for cameras, appearing on TV and counting the $240 each of them was awarded by the province.
And all this because of one American's excellent Chinese adventure. The 58-year-old O'Shea, reached by telephone at his home in Oppenheim, N.Y., said he had "zero idea" that his letter and Jiang's response had caused such a huge political to-do.
"I don't pretend to be a Henry Kissinger," he said, but "if it's used to foster [good] relations between America and China, then I'm happy."
The hubbub in Hebei has echoes of similar movements over the past 50 years in China, where the Communist regime routinely exhorted people to "Learn from Lei Feng," a legendary young army recruit who supposedly darned his fellow soldiers' socks while they slept.
At the same time, the ballyhoo comes amid a concerted effort by both China and the U.S. to improve relations in advance of a trip by the biggest American visitor of them all: President Bush, who is to travel to Shanghai next month.
The government here is keen to burnish its image before the meeting and to repair ties damaged by the detaining of U.S. scholars, disagreements over missile defense systems and a downed American spy plane.
In fact, it was just days after the crippled spy plane landed in China on April 1 after colliding with a Chinese jet fighter that O'Shea and his tour group, consisting of his family and students from Fulton-Montgomery Community College in Johnston, N.Y., arrived in China.
Their trip had been colored by fears among some of the parents about how the Americans would be treated. But the group met with nothing but graciousness and warmth, O'Shea said.
That's what inspired him to sit down and write to Jiang at the end of May. "I wanted to let him know how friendly the Chinese and Americans were toward each other," especially during such a tense time in Sino-U.S. diplomacy, he said.