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Flip Side to Fame in China

An Olympic diving star is a casualty in the Communist Party's bid to reassert old values.

March 14, 2005|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

CHONGQING, China — Tian Liang, 25, is handsome, tall and was, until recently, the pride of China. When he returned from the 2004 Athens Olympics with a gold medal for synchronized diving, his star appeal skyrocketed and advertisers banged on his door. Tian decided to take a breather, grab some endorsements and enjoy the payoff after endless hours in the pool.

Not so fast, said the government-controlled athletic association, which kicked him off the national team in January, denouncing him for taking part in unauthorized business activities, turning up late for training and tarnishing the sport's image.

Advertisers wary of offending China's overarching Communist Party quickly dropped his television spots for health food and stopped hiring him for celebrity appearances. News stories detailing his past glory were expunged from websites.

"He has failed to reflect on his errant behavior and conduct a 'deep self-criticism,' " a swimming association official said.

Tian, a national symbol of tremendous propaganda value, is swimming against a new political tide as he is made an example of for a policy on full display at the National People's Congress, which ends today.

Under the slogan "A Harmonious Society," President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have laid out a two-part vision for their administration: to bring the ruling Communist Party back to its core values of discipline, virtue and collective effort; and to focus resources and political will on the have-nots, including the rural poor, migrants and urban laborers left behind by two decades of growth.

Tian was just one beneficiary of the economic changes that have created opportunities for millions of Chinese, and brought modern architecture, Starbucks and wireless networks to China's big cities. In the face of such enormous change, however, the Communist Party remains vigilant, willing to sacrifice the individual for what leaders see as the collective good.

"The Chinese have a saying, 'Kill one to scare 100,' " said Zhao Jian, a 57-year-old businessman, waiting for his grandson in front of Tian's former primary school. "They're making an example of Tian, and I think it's a shame. They're being very hard on him."

Singling out a high-profile figure to make a point is "the old China peeking through," said Andrew Mertha of Washington University. But the mores set forth by Hu and Wen have several tangible goals: By championing the underclass and shunning immodest behavior, they are drawing sharp contrasts to the imperious style of former President Jiang Zemin, who focused on the urban elite, snazzy technology and splashy architecture.

More fundamentally, the leaders hope to defuse the growing instability and discontent fueled by China's yawning wealth gap, potentially a huge challenge to their rule. There were 58,000 protests and riots across the country in 2003, or 160 a day, many over perceived abuses by local authorities, according to government statistics, which could be underreporting the problem.

Hoping to reduce the pressure, China's leadership has eliminated taxes for farmers, increased subsidies and vowed to act against unjust land seizures.

The focus on social harmony and internal party discipline also dovetails with the personal style of Wen and Hu. Both men are seen as careful officials not known for bold moves or gestures of the sort that spurred Jiang to sing "Love Me Tender" on overseas trips. Both spent most of their careers in poor rural areas and understand grass-roots concerns.

"They bring that sensibility, what economic success looks like to those not enjoying the upside," said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a China scholar at the University of Michigan.

Many analysts welcome their focus on alleviating poverty for such a large swath of China's, and the world's, population.

But Hu and Wen's emphasis on greater virtue, old-style Communist study sessions and renewed party discipline worries some. They see in this a willingness to keep the party above the law, able to act as it sees fit rather than establish modern institutions with checks and balances to curb malfeasance and inefficiency.

"They're calculating that if they pump more money into the countryside, they won't have to reform," said Richard Baum, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at UCLA. "They're de-emphasizing good institutions and stressing perfection of the individual."

Hu and Wen sit atop a party structure riddled by corruption and struggling to modernize. In the process, they are shepherding one of history's great experiments: whether an authoritarian state can hold on to power over a society increasingly capitalist in all but name.

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