China bans 'Obamao' shirt, fearing offense to Obama

In China and the US, the 'Obamao' shirt – which puts President Barack Obama's face between Mao Zedong's iconic cap and jacket – has been a kitschy and right-wing favorite.

David Gray/Reuters/Files
A worker dries shirts bearing an image of U.S. President Barack Obama's face over that of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong at a shirt printing factory located on the outskirts of Beijing.

BEIJING – Leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to be gracious hosts to Barack Obama, the Chinese authorities have gone so far as to ban a T-shirt they fear might offend the US President.

Known as the “Obamao” shirt, the design juxtaposes two iconic silk screened images – putting Mr. Obama’s face between a Mao cap and the collar of a Mao jacket.

The item was selling like hot cakes in a Beijing souvenir shop until the government cracked down. “The Industry and Commerce Bureau came round last week and told us that if we sold this T-shirt we’d be closed down” said one hawker on a popular tourist street who preferred not to give his name.

He lamented the loss of business. “People are coming here every day asking for those T-shirts,” he added.

In China, the image comes across as witty and cool. (This was planning to buy a couple for his teenage sons for Christmas, but didn’t act fast enough.) The Chinese government’s ban struck many here as another absurd overreaction. Perhaps Beijing is better attuned to US political sensibilities than one might think, though. The same T-shirt is advertised to US buyers on the web (at $9.99 apiece) as an “anti-Obama” item.

“Huge seller in communist china lol. I’m just bringing them to America. Wear your support and let em know how you really feel” reads the sales pitch on the site.

“The people wearing these T-shirts in the US are the same ones as compare Obama’s health care reform with the Holocaust” says Jeremiah Jenne, who blogs from Beijing on . “They are comparing Obama to Hitler.”

But in China, the T-shirts, while they were available, were popular with young people who admire Obama and who get the Andy Warhol-esque joke about icons.

The fact that it is considered cool speaks to how popular Chairman Mao remains in China, revered as the father of the nation, and also about how popular he remains among foreigners – even those who are aware of the tens of millions of people who died under his rule.

“Mao is kitschy and cool,” says Mr. Jenne. “He gets a pass” in a way that other 20th century dictators don’t.

Politically fashion-conscious Beijing residents are hoping that once Obama has left, the T-shirts will slip back onto the shelves. One thing is sure: They will cost less here than the $9.99 that American right-wingers are being charged.

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