Schwarzenegger’s Celebrity Is a Hot Commodity in China

Times Staff Writers

On Jianguomenwai Street near Beijing’s embassy district, a man dressed in a black jacket and dark pants steps out from behind a hedge. “DVDs? DVDs?” he asks, opening a black shoulder bag filled with several hundred pirated movies.

“We may have some Schwarzenegger films here somewhere,” says the 32-year-old, declining to be identified other than by his last name, Peng. “But they’re rather old now.”

Schwarzenegger’s movies may be ancient by the lightning standards of DVD pirating, but the California governor remains a potent curiosity in China. With more at stake than just his own movie grosses, Schwarzenegger arrived here Monday for a trade mission and found a far more enthusiastic audience than he had last week in California during the special election.


In his first substantive address, the governor spoke today about the need to confront the world energy crisis.

Only hours after landing, Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, were mobbed by photographers and fans as they tried to cross a street in downtown Beijing and enter a banquet hall. As a dozen Chinese security guards vainly tried to maintain order, the crowd shoved down the street, setting off car alarms along the way, pushed through a revolving door and then up an escalator.

Schwarzenegger’s top aide, Pat Clarey, was abruptly blocked from entering the banquet room before someone yelled: “That’s the governor’s chief of staff!” The conference center security staff shoved people back through the door and closed it behind her.

“Just another day traveling with the governor in a foreign country,” Clarey said.

By this morning, Schwarzenegger had launched his economic message, telling a U.S.-China economic forum that energy will be the defining issue of our time. He spoke of a world in which solar cells are designed in the Silicon Valley and manufactured in China and cars run on hydrogen.

“I know one thing for sure, the answer can no longer be oil,” Schwarzenegger said at the forum, where he was introduced by former President George H. W. Bush, who is also visiting the country.

Schwarzenegger was also scheduled to speak at two other business conferences, one of which was to include a banquet in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square. Shriver visited a women’s center in Beijing, part of a separate itinerary that included a luncheon with prominent women and a trip to an orphanage in Shanghai.

The governor is traveling to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong with at least 50 bodyguards and staff, including his own hair and makeup artist and a videographer. In addition, nearly 80 business executives are with him, staying at four-star hotels and traveling by chartered jet. Major American companies are paying the bulk of the expenses through donations to four trade funds run by the state and by Schwarzenegger allies.

As with most Schwarzenegger events, the China trip is expected to focus more on his celebrity status than on the economic motivations behind his visit.

Schwarzenegger joins a large group of Americans seeking a piece of China. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, with an entourage of at least 200, is here for his own trade mission, and former President Bush and dozens of American chief executives are in town for a business conference.

There are other distractions here as well: China is focused on the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference in Vietnam, the bird flu scare and President Bush’s visit to Beijing at the end of the week.

The governor’s staff said Schwarzenegger has the ability to make a dent despite competition for the attention of government officials and the state-run media. The local silk market does not, after all, sell statuettes of Pawlenty -- it’s Schwarzenegger’s image on the shelves.

In a secured government compound Monday, Schwarzenegger met with Hui Liangyu, the vice premier and agriculture minister, to promote California fruits, nuts and vegetables.

While here, he is scheduled to give a speech based on his life story to students at a Beijing university, tour a steel factory and port and attend the premiere of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

Schwarzenegger devoted his first few moments in China to promoting the Special Olympics, which were started by his mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

During a chilly outdoor event at the China Millennium Monument, an enormous concrete sundial in central Beijing, he shared the stage with Deng Pufang, the son of former Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping. The younger Deng was disabled when he was pushed from a window during the Cultural Revolution.

“Part of what Special Olympics is trying to do is break down stereotypes that still exist for people,” Maria Shriver said in an interview after the event. “There is still a lot of fear.”

She nevertheless noted that the Special Olympics in China had grown nearly tenfold in five years, to 500,000 athletes.

Asked if she was startled by the wild greeting they received, Shriver said: “A little bit.”

Although numerous posters in Beijing subway stations promoted Schwarzenegger’s appearance at the monument, the event was closed to all but several hundred Special Olympics athletes and their supporters, all wearing red vests, who crowded a plaza to view the speeches in the cold afternoon. A local pizza shop, however, did manage to put up a banner in the middle of the crowd, thus advertising in front of TV cameras.

Trade missions like this one invariably lead to excited announcements about business deals that would have been reached regardless of the governor’s involvement.

Joe Rollo, international director for the Wine Institute of California, said of Schwarzenegger’s trade mission to Japan last year: “My expectations were minimal, and they were met.”

Nevertheless, Rollo is on the trip to China. Schwarzenegger’s simply holding up a bottle of wine on TV here could go a long way toward changing minds in what is largely a beer-drinking culture, he said. California wine sales in China amount to about $6 million annually, mostly to foreign citizens and tourists.

“They are not really sure who makes it or what it should taste like and how they should drink it. They mix it with Sprite and Coke,” he said.

Yang Hua, sales director with Grace Vineyard, an upscale Chinese winery, said the Chinese wine market is still young but developing very quickly.

The practice of mixing soft drinks with wine started in the mid-1990s because Chinese weren’t used to the dry tannin taste, he said. But particularly in the big cities, people’s taste is becoming more sophisticated, he added.

Any move by Schwarzenegger to promote California wine should help not only California imports but the entire market, Hua said. “The Terminator is very famous in China.... Schwarzenegger has a strong image and most people think of guns ... not wine or music. But at least he’s famous, so a lot of people will notice. Also, if people see that he’s bringing something and not just killing things, that could be very good.”

Schwarzenegger’s mission also is designed to warn the Chinese people against copyright infringement. In Shanghai, the nation’s business capital, Schwarzenegger is scheduled to unveil a public service television advertisement featuring himself and action star Jackie Chan; the ad is set to run in the Hong Kong area only.

“Having the highest elected official at the state level trying to pressure the government of China and Chinese officials to make sure copyrights are respected and enforced is very, very important,” said Sebastian Edwards, international trade professor at UCLA’s Anderson Graduate School of Management.

This is occurring even though not everyone in Beijing was sympathetic to the governor’s mission this week. Huang Jie, 64, a retired company owner, said: “Sometimes the Americans are a bit like bullies on this issue. They need to understand that China is still a poor country.

“Many people sympathize with the American concerns, and the Chinese government has shut down over 60 factories, but it will take time, and America should understand that,” he said. “They should make authorized DVDs at a cheaper price so Chinese can afford them. Schwarzenegger could help by offering some of his movies at a cheaper price.”