The t-shirt says it all

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The most interesting souvenir I picked up while in Beijing last month was a t-shirt. It only cost me about $3, but the underlying message is priceless.

Mao souvenirs are common in China. One popular t-shirt has a caricature of the former leader with a quote below, “Serve the people…Mao Zedong.” An Obama version of the shirt is now available, featuring the president wearing Mao’s Chinese cap and the “OBAMAO” logo appears on the back. Other designs are available as well, each with Obama replacing Mao. These t-shirts have been around since 2009; you can see a photo of the one I got at http://www.cnngo.com/explorations/shop/obamao-tshirt-658266.

Mao is an icon in China. Cartoons and parodies with his likeness exist from time to time, but the government there does not permit him to be presented in a negative light. Chinese students study his writings in school alongside those Confucius and Marx. Although China has strayed from Mao’s teachings over the last two decades–especially in the area of economic reform—his reputation is alive and well, and insults are not taken lightly.

Now I don’t take everything I see on a t-shirt literally, but there’s an underlying message here. The Chinese people have heard our president wax eloquent on wealth redistribution. His views on the evils of corporate America and “the rich” are widely reported there. The Chinese know Mao and Marx well, and they see a connection with Obama. Many see our president as a kind of American version of Mao, a leader who seeks to “fundamentally transform America.”

There’s a real irony here. Americans who use terms like Marxist or socialist to describe Obama are called mean-spirited. While his apologists tell us that there is no intellectual basis for such a comparison, Obama’s Marxist overtones are widely recognized in China. I tried not to discuss Obama much while there as I didn’t want to find myself criticizing the president on foreign soil. But it’s clear that Obama is as popular there as any American president could be, and those I spoke with seem to understand what he means by “hope and change.”

BTW, you can get your own OBAMAO shirts on eBay, but it will cost you more than $3. And if you think the Chinese produce shirts like this for Republican presidents, think again: http://www.pekingduck.org/2005/03/ask-me-what-my-t-shirt-says-in-chinese/.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jerry  •  Oct 14, 2010 @9:25 AM

    I’m getting one of those shirts. I can’t wait for someone to accuse me of being a hatemonger. I’ll tell them to complain to the chinese.