China's Hero Worship Shines on Unlikely Star

Popularity of powerful foreign leader reveals a growing gap between government and people.

On campuses throughout the world's most populous nation, Xiao Ke is known as a youthful, energetic, and positive leader, even if his personal affairs are a bit chaotic.

Countless students at Beijing University are now angling to try to get a ticket for the coming appearance of Xiao Ke, described as "a man of the people" and a statesman of far-reaching global vision.

Magazines here that put Xiao Ke on their covers sell faster than rare teas, and yuppies across Chinese cities follow the twists and turns of his life like a soap opera.

Xiao Ke is not a Chinese movie star, politician, or rock star.

In fact, he is not even Chinese.

Xiao Ke is the nickname that many Chinese students, scholars, and citizens from every walk of life have given to Bill Clinton.

The US president's popularity here was growing even before Beijing's propaganda machine started churning out pro-American news flashes to pave the way for a successful summit. Roughly translated as "Little Clint," Xiao Ke "is the kind of nickname you might give to a younger friend that you really like," says bookshop owner Liu Yuansheng. "Many Chinese were amazed when Clinton was elected president at such a young age, and the name Xiao Ke seemed to capture his dynamism and charisma," she adds.

Clinton's youth and reputation for empathizing with people stand in remarkable contrast with the public image of most Communist leaders here, who are often seen as remote and elite.

"Clinton is seen as a great humanitarian and a leader who sees the entire planet and the long-range potential for change, unlike many American politicians who seem narrow-minded and provincial when dealing with the rest of the world," says a Beijing art lecturer. "His playing the saxophone gives Clinton the air of being down to earth."

Chinese President Jiang Zemin seems to be pirating some of his American counterpart's photo-ops. State TV recently showed him playing a Chinese harp, joking around, and singing opera.

Treating Jiang as an equal

"Clinton has a great rapport with Jiang Zemin, and the two really seem to like each other," says a Western official in Beijing.

Bookshop owner Liu agrees. "Through little gestures like personally placing a pedestal before a White House podium for Jiang last year, Clinton showed he regarded the Chinese leader as an equal," she says.

Jiang, in turn, is using the power of the state to return the favor.

Copies of "Clinton: The Sensual President," a compilation of translated stories from the Western media on the tangled web of investigations, allegations, and tribulations surrounding Clinton, were recently seized from bookstores in the capital. The campaign to sanitize Clinton's image probably marks the first time in the history of the People's Republic of China that Beijing's thought police have protected an American leader.

Whom Beijing U students like

Yet Jiang's admiration for the US president seems tinged with a sense of envy. "The [Chinese] government wavered for quite a while before it approved Clinton's request to speak at Beijing University," says a liberal arts instructor at the school. The university was at the eye of the pro-democracy tornadoes that ripped across China in 1989.

During a visit to the school in April, Jiang "was greeted largely by party members, department heads, and pre-screened students," says the instructor. Beijing's leaders "are really worried now that Clinton might get a much more enthusiastic reception when he gives a talk at Beijing University" on June 29, he adds.

The very act of calling Clinton "Xiao Ke" is interpreted by some Chinese as a subtle method of pointing out the huge gap between China's rulers and the people.

"For thousands of years, there were very precise terms of address for China's emperors, and there could be no question of making the slightest mistake with those terms," says Li Shiqiang, co-owner with Ms. Liu of the Three-Flavor Bookshop in Beijing. "Even today, no one would even think of referring to Chairman Jiang Zemin as "Xiao Jiang," he adds. "But calling Clinton Xiao Ke seems very natural," he says.

Most urban Chinese have closely followed preparations for Clinton's trip, the first US presidential visit since the Army fired on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989, and many have heard that Xiao Ke hopes to meet ordinary citizens.

"Xiao Ke is welcome to bring his sax and jam during the jazz evenings we sponsor every weekend at the Three-Flavor Bookshop," says Mr. Li.

The shop, whose teahouse doubles as a freewheeling venue for Chinese and Western musicians and listeners, "is open to Xiao Ke whenever he visits Beijing," adds Ms. Liu.

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