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Asian Culture and Christmas

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Christmas, once an almost totally Christian celebration from Europe featuring the child of Jesus Christ and a sort of magical German elf named Kris has been morphed into the largest retail and gift giving season on the earth. Without Christmas, many stores and shops not to mention the giant retailers like Sears, Target and WalMart, would not make a profit all year and therefore would fail.

A big retail store manager said to me, "If we didn't have Christmas, we'd have to invent it."

The Chinese, long known for knowing a good money making deal when they see it, have slowly been adopting their own version of Christmas in that Communist country since trade with the west opened in the Nixon era. Today, many Chinese, even though they may not be at all religious, exchange cards and gifts and share large family meals or other celebratory events at Christmas. Wreaths, Santas and other festive Christmas decorations are popping up in stores, shops and even homes. This should surprise no one since these decorations are all made in China to start with!

But a backlash this year against the celebration of Christmas in China has been created by ten doctoral students from some of China's most elite universities. The students from Peking, Tsinghua, and People's universities penned a kind of scolding to their fellow Communist citizens warning them that Christmas is, after all, a Western Christian tradition. They strongly suggested that the Chinese people should stick to the traditions and festivals observed in their own culture.

The doctoral students accused those that observed Christmas as being subjected to the "collective cultural coma" - a kind of brainwashing of western ideas, products, fashions, values, music and movies. After all, the largest export America has to China is its own cultural artifacts: Levi's jeans, "Lethal Weapon" movies and all the rest. Like other nations such as France, where too much American influence is decried, the young people of China buy American culture in copious amounts. One might say they "feed on" American culture at McDonalds, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Some Chinese teens might think Kentucky is another Chinese province.

So the resistance to Christmas by this small group of Chinese students in not surprising but it has caused a significant ripple of discussion across China, especially on the internet.

The students wrote that, "Western culture has been changing from a breeze and a drizzle into a wild wind and a heavy storm. This is vividly embodied in the rising popularity of Christmas."

When I first saw this story I thought that the Communist regime may have planted it to reinvigorate traditional Chinese and Communist traditions and values. In fact, in Communists China, where the lack of free speech allows the government to control, manipulate and censor the news, the internet and even email, the government operated web sites have reportedly picked up the complaint of the 10 doctoral students and rocketed their letter across China. Our man inside China phoned us (an email probably would have been read by government "watchers") to report on what he was seeing on the Chinese internet sites.

"The letter by the students appears on every major Chinese news internet site. One has to wonder if the Chinese government intentionally created this story or just saw it and seized upon it as an opportunity to enforce 'cultural purity.'"

Whatever is behind this discussion inside China there are a few points worth remembering. Some Americans critical of Hollywood and American cultural icons point out rightly that whatever we produce is often used to judge America as a place, a people and a culture. Secondly, often times the export of our media and cultural artifacts slams into another nation this way: they young eat it up and the old (more traditional) hate it.

For better or for worse, we Americans are judged by movies, music, video and the like to such an extent that the governments of Cuba, Vietnam, China, Iran and elsewhere, work hard to keep their citizens from seeing American TV, movies (and music) and internet sites.

In our view, nations that try to manipulate what their populations see, read, hear and know are on the way toward failure. It is just a matter of time.
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John E. Carey is the former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc.
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