BEIJING — It might be hard for even the most lateral thinker to see how the Lions Club, skateboarding, and "American Idol" could have anything in common. But maybe they do in China, where all three are among popular culture imports that receive direct or indirect backing in a carefully crafted state practice of opening up - as well as shutting out.
On Sunday, loud hip-hop at a stadium in Beijing provided the beat for one of China's latest imports. More than 100 Chinese lads, and one lady, went board to board, and bike to bike, in one of the first national "extreme" sports competitions. Kids brought skateboards, BMX bikes, and in-line blades to push the acrobatic edge, and put their sport on the Middle Kingdom's athletic map.
In China, foreign-culture imports are carefully watched and vetted. No organized initiatives, no serious advertising, no creation of media fads or buzz can take place without party approval. Fads are pushed, experimented with, and sometimes abandoned if their popularity becomes too great or worrisome.
"For many reasons, China allows in foreign imports, jazz, rollerblading, whatever, and it flourishes for a season. Chinese love trying new things," says a Beijing-based scholar. "But as soon as the fad gets established, the propaganda stops, and the import often dries up. You used to see a lot of rollerblading. It dried up. Even jazz dried up."
Chinese officials tend to approve imports that can be described as wholesome and harmless. Pop culture imports must offer an impression that China is opening up, and is creating an atmosphere congenial to foreign investment.
Today, for example, in the Great Hall of the People, Chinese officials are signing an agreement with Lions Clubs International to allow local cities here to form charitable clubs of their own. The club appears so far to have permission to seek new members here - something unusual in a country where people are discouraged from creating groups outside the workplace.
Last week, however, brought a new restriction. Officials reiterated that "as soon as possible," all Japanese animé and Western cartoons, including those of Disney, will be purged from Chinese TV - to be replaced by all Chinese-drawn cartoons.
"There is a reluctance to put Western culture and thinking in children's heads, and we have enough superb drawing to fill our [television] channels," explains the Beijing-based scholar.
One fad that has faded is rock music, which briefly flourished in the 1990s before it inevitably took on a political cast. It was pointed out that Soviet youth during the glasnost period listened to rock music. That took away the kind of support necessary in China to make anything new take hold. China's ace rocker Cui Jin was censored, as are those few foreign bands who still come here.
"China is becoming more diverse," says University of Chicago expert Dali Yang. "Some of the changes are normal fads like any country has. [But sometimes] China feels like France, where it feels its culture and language are under siege. I think the country is trying to strike a proper balance."
Still, in the Chinese "text message" generation, those born in the '80s, there are notable imports from overseas. There's the current "Super Girl" craze, for example. The popular TV show is China's answer to American Idol. More than 100,000 women signed up in the past year to sing in local competitions that have led to national programming - where mostly under-30 Chinese voted by text messaging.
Extreme sports is another example of what's in. With the 2008 Beijing Olympics coming, and with skateboarding a possible medal competition, the Association of Extreme Sports in China invited about 75 Chinese kids to Beijing for the televised June 12-13 competition. There are some 6,000 serious skateboarders in China, and only slightly fewer in-line skaters. BMX biking is just catching on, the extreme sports group here estimates.
"China still doesn't have that many skateboard parks, but I was pretty shocked at the number of boarders," says Reno-based Jimmy Coleman of Action Sports Association, who helped run the event. "And they are almost up to par, I mean competitively."
One often unstated reason for bringing in Western fads is for Chinese to show they are just as capable and deserving of respect as foreigners, experts say. Huge billboards around China for many years read "What New York Has, Beijing Has As Well."
China's national in-line skating champion Liu Min says he was a member of a club in Shandong when a sports ministry official selected him to train seven years ago for in-line skating. "I was a martial-arts fanatic for a long time, until I was chosen for training. I'm really glad that happened," he says.
Most of the kids at the extreme sports event don't care about what is and isn't foreign - they care instead about perfecting stunts. BMX rider Zhou Ding Kun is working on mastering a BMX move called "Panda Riding Cycle." He says only one rider in China, can perform the move. It involves a leap, a landing, and an immediate front wheel straight up and a dizzying stationary spin of the cycle. But he adds with 17-year old world weariness, "It's too complicated to explain, but I may be able to learn it by next year."