In China there seems to be a search for the so-called “Communist Obama” T-shirt, which began with a capable intern scouring markets in Beijing. It depicts U.S. President Barack Obama wearing a Red Army uniform, the “Chinese communist-style” outfit made famous by Chairman Mao. On the front it says, “Serve the People” in Chinese. On the back, “Oba-Mao” in English.
Our first scan of Beijing turned up nothing. But a tip led us to the basement of Shin Kong Place. In an unassuming souvenir shop, we found a T-shirt in extra-large. During our flight from Beijing to Shanghai to cover the president’s arrival, a news blitz indicated the shirts had been “banned” by the Chinese government amid worries that they may offend the American president.
Thank goodness we’d gotten ours in time!
But there was no way to confirm the government had indeed taken the shirts off the shelves, so we decided to check for ourselves. We headed to Yatai Xinyang market at a Shanghai metro stop in search of Obama-branded merchandise.
The Chinese also make wallets and trading cards featuring the “Communist Obama” image.
We found nothing but could not be sure they hadn’t sold them there before. So, I chose that opportune moment to do a piece to camera with the shirt in hand. Bad move? Maybe. But it ended up being great television.
Two security guards happened to pass by at the moment I announced to the camera: “This is the T-shirt everybody is talking about.” And that was it. They scrambled toward us and tried to pry the shirt out of my hands. I didn’t give in.
Technically, we did not have permission to film in the market. And the security guards scolded us for not getting permission ahead of time.
There was a bit of yelling and quite a scuffle. My producer Jo Kent emphatically stated our case. Photographer Miguel Castro kept his cool. By this point, we had everything on tape.
We ended up being detained for two hours in the cold maze of a market. A crowd gathered round. More security and then police showed up. They wanted our press cards, our passports, but most of all, they wanted the shirt.
Ultimately, they confirmed that we were indeed “real” journalists (that are legally reporting in China.) But that didn’t stop them from scolding us and making it very difficult to leave. After asking repeatedly and then one last time for the shirt, I refused.
Finally, they let us go. Phew!
It was worth it. The shirt got attention on the air and sparked buzz online. In fact, some members of the White House pool and a few colleagues in Atlanta actually tried to bribe me for it.
Nothing like juxtaposing communism and democracy in more ways than one. Just another day on the job.