When a rising Asian nation tries to create its own version of a popular event from the West, watch out.
The latest example comes from China. It is trying to upstage the Nobel Peace Prize by awarding a "Confucius Peace Prize" on Thursday -- a day before the 2010 Nobel prize is to be given to a jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo.
The Chinese award is an obvious ploy to confuse people about the worth of the Nobel prize. And just to make a point, it is being given to a politician from Taiwan (or the Republic of China, as Beijing refuses to call it) who has tried to find common ground between the mainland and the island country (which Beijing does not call a country).
China's move to outdo a prominent Western tradition follows in the footsteps of Japan, an earlier, rising Asian giant.
In 1985, Japan set up an annual "Japan Prize" to imitate the Nobel prizes for scientific and technological breakthroughs – partly out of a worry that so few Japanese researchers had ever won a Nobel. This prize serves as an alternative award meant to include different categories of science, notably mathematics. (Alfred Nobel did not include that field in his list of prizes allegedly after one of his lovers left him for a mathematician.)
Another Western tradition that Japan has tried to imitate is the global beauty pageant.
It took over the Miss International Beauty Pageant in 1972, and has since tried hard to make it compete with the Miss Universe and Miss World contests – and perhaps also to give Asian women a fair shake in such global competitions. (This year, the Japanese organizers held the event in China.)
I was an unwitting participant in the 1992 pageant. The unwitting part goes like this: After being elected president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, only later did I learn that one of the "duties" is to be a judge at this yearly contest.
Unfortunately, I took this duty a bit too seriously, even wearing a Bert Parks-style tuxedo. As I sat with the other judges in front of the contestants – all live on Japanese TV, mind you – I actually tried to figure out which young woman was the most talented, poised, and beautiful.
At one point, I leaned back to a female friend sitting behind me and said, "I think I like Miss Argentina." "No," she whispered, "she looks trashy." So much for male perception of female qualities.
In the end, I voted for Miss South Korea, partly out of sympathy – Korea was once a colony of Japan – and partly because I figured out that about half of the judges were Japanese – which probably meant the results had already been cooked.
I had been warned by a friend that the Japanese prefer blondes. And sure enough, Miss Australia won that year – she being a blonde, of course.
The strangest part was that the event took place in Nagasaki, scene of the second dropping of an atomic bomb. I had to avoid using phrases like "bombshell" and "she looks like a blast." I wanted to be a sensitive male, and a politically correct one, too.
The experience taught me to beware of Asian nations trying to best the West with some souped-up copy of a grand event. So I will be casting a wary eye at the first-ever Confucius Prize. Imitation isn't always the best form of flattery.