Climbing tragedy opens debate in China

An extreme sport has ordinary Chinese rethinking their image as risk averse

A tragic accident on China's tallest Himalayan peak has sparked an unusually vigorous national discussion in a country where issues of personal choice and family responsibility are often officially constrained.

The discussion built after five Beijing University students – members of the college's most prestigious club, the Mountain Eagles – died last month in an avalanche while climbing Mount Shishma Pangma in Tibet.

Attempting to repeat the success of a 1964 Chinese expedition, a 15-member Eagle group, led by Lin Liqing, an experienced mountaineer and graduate math student, tried to scale the mountain. They ignored warnings about lack of equipment, guides, and freakish weather; five of the students, including Mr. Lin, were killed.

As news of the tragedy rolled in, some state media outlets asked why youth with promising futures would take unnecessary risks, harming their families and robbing China of their talents. Yet this official "sensible" line brought its own small avalanche of contrary opinions. Heavy press coverage led to reader surveys asking "How high should the eagle fly?" A popular Internet portal has stored 700 pages of reader comment – after deleting the first weeks of e-mail.

Opinions split over such questions as how adventurous Chinese young adults can be, how much responsibility they have to family, even the character and image of the Chinese compared to Westerners. The discussion eventually turned into a grass-roots free-for-all – something unusual in China, where debate is often controlled by state media.

"The discussion was not held under a government propaganda edict," says Life Week deputy editor Miao Wei. "It came directly from people's interest."

More typically, an issue bubbles up, is officially defined, and a small "debate" ensues. Then, several days later, an official "solution" or answer is proffered. But this tragedy hit as China is about to transition to a new generation of leaders, bringing many adjustments, including a "generation gap" of attitudes and values in upper-middle-class circles.

"The Mountain Eagles offer a contrary view of the Chinese people, who are sometimes seen as weak, not brave, not risk-takers. And it plays into a growing interest in extreme sports, like climbing, among people who can now afford it," says Mr. Miao.

"Everyone has a different value system, and we want the sport because it is meaningful to us," offers one Beijing University student. "Not everyone can understand that. We don't do it for money, we do it to free our minds; it is a free choice and no one else's business."

But high school teacher Zhen Jaiwen represents a more traditional view. "To realize self-value, you don't need to tame mountains. The best thing is to travel in a tour group. People won't think you are a coward. There are more important things in life than mountains and rivers."

While "extreme" sports are popular in the West, climbing is one of few to have made inroads here – in limited, but growing elite circles. Beijing University certainly qualifies as elite. In China, "Beida," as it is known, is a Harvard, Yale, and Stanford rolled into one. It is considered a vanguard of Chinese society, and news editors say it was the loss of Beida youth that sparked the discussion.

Membership in the Mountain Eagles is highly coveted on campus; the club is the No. 1 amateur climbing association in China. Eagles accept 200 members a year, but only a handful survive the rigorous training. Climbers who defend the Pangma expedition point out that most team members have climbed several mountains and that no team can predict weather.

"If we thought with absolute rationality, I suppose we wouldn't go climbing mountains," said Cheng Qingchun, a former Mountain Eagle leader.

Last week, China Youth Daily published a survey on Chinese parents' attitudes toward adolescents. Parents desire teens who are "diligent," "honest," and "industrious," the study found. They also show a liking for traits such as independence, creativity, or team spirit in their offspring. The next day the popular daily printed an editorial advising parents to stop overpressuring students about academic performance, to deal with them as "equal human beings," and to give them independence.

"Too few Chinese are taking risks. People want to sit in a room and make money," says a Beijing researcher. "I think the spirit to climb should be encouraged.

"But I'm not sure I want my son to do it."

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