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Monday, Aug. 25, 2008

Chinese 'oldies' who raised the bar for caring

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — In the obsessive media heat of these youth-oriented Beijing Olympics, a once-famous Chinese political figure has died at the ripe young age of 87, and goes to the grave almost internationally unnoticed.

He was Hua Guofeng. Upon the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, this old Stalinist grump and Mao sycophant seated himself in the chair reserved for the leader of China. But then along came the infinitely more clever Deng Xiaoping, and Hua soon found himself unceremoniously unseated.

Even so, Hua remains a major icon in modern Chinese politics. Had not most of China and the international news media been riveted on such historic Olympic moments as "beach volleyball," his death might have led the world news and riveted the nation. It might have also renewed the fascinating theme of the wise old man's historic role in China's evolution. How old — really — is old?

I would argue that someone in their early 40s should not be stamped as a candidate for the rocking chair. Yet the U.S. news media treated Olympic medalist and celebrity mother Dara Torres, 41, as if she were just weeks ahead of assisted living. At one point I feared that NBC, the official U.S. Olympic Games broadcaster, would offer the old mare a set of senior discount coupon books.

America is like that, of course. We are a youth culture. My own college generation spearheaded the disrespectful student mantra of "don't trust anyone over 30." Even today, most 21-year olds are repelled by the thought of hooking up romantically with "an old person" — such as anyone over 30.

At first glance, China's ageism might seem as brutal as America's. After all, the collective age of the suspiciously youthful six-member Chinese woman's gymnastic team (if it could be accurately determined) might not exceed that of the deceased Hua! The Beijing Olympics threw a blanket over the deeply encrusted Chinese value that age can equal wisdom, and that youthful over-exuberance can equal the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.

In their heart, the Chinese know that. Some "old" Chinese leaders I have met mirror the vision of the aged. I interviewed the memorable Qian Qichen in the late 1990s when he was still the internationally respected foreign minister. From 1988 to 1999, the diminutive fireplug was the undisputed executive vicar of Chinese foreign policy.

Although an unabashed anti- independence hawk on the hot-button issue of Taiwan independence, Qian otherwise was widely viewed as an eagle-eyed pragmatist who softened some of the steel around hardline Chinese policies. Until the age of 75, he continued to serve on the powerful State Council. Today at 80, this little legend is no longer the ball of fire he used to be, to be sure, but his time-tested perspective and experience remain invaluable to China's political ruling class.

Wang Daohan was another impressive wise "old man' of China. In 2005 he died in his beloved Shanghai at the ripe young age of 90. For a long time he was the mainland's chief guru on the Taiwan issue. In 1992 he negotiated with his Taiwan counterpart what is even today famously regarded as a political milestone: the "1992 consensus."

Although profoundly ambiguous, it enshrines the concept that there can be only "one China." Deftly, the 1992 consensus fails to indicate who is to be the boss of that one China. But at least it reduces the rancor between the parties by establishing a first principle.

When Wang was interviewed in Shanghai, years before his death, he struck me as a kind of special behind-the-scenes force that belied the image of all communists as preternaturally feral. He came across as a philosopher of negotiations that might be theoretically endless. That is, he believed you could talk almost any seemingly insurmountable political difference to death, as long as you talk long enough. This idea has, to me at least, great appeal.

Ancient societies that have managed to hang together through pestilence, earthquakes, barbarians at the gate and everything else under the sun know that age can be relative. Some 21-year-olds are old before their time; some septuagenarians have a sprightly spring in their step until the day their time comes. Antony was almost three decades older than Cleopatra when they hooked up.

To be sure, some oldsters become dreary and dreaded old fogies like the late Hua Guofeng, who resisted reform and change to the end. But those youthful oldies can set standards of caring and excellence that create a high bar of achievement — higher than anything seen even at the youth-driven Olympics.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate, on leave from teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles, did not attend the Olympic Games. © 2008 Pacific Perspective Media Center

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