Why China Loves Arnie

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California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger embraces Special Olympics athlete Wang Xiaoyu in Beijing

The American politician most beloved in China arrived in Beijing on Monday, flanked by a 79-strong delegation of businessmen, lobbyists and anyone else eager to cash in on the Chinese economic miracle. Back home, there was much talk about how the trip to the Middle Kingdom would divert attention from the U.S. leader's political woes, as his popularity polls sunk to record lows. But in China, he reveled in a red-carpet welcome and greeted screaming schoolchildren who lined his path just to catch a glimpse of their hero. No, this wasn't President George W. Bush—who will arrive in China for a state visit on Saturday—it was California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, better known in China as Shi Wa Xin Ge.

Days after California voters had handed their governor his biggest political defeat yet by rejecting all four of his ballot initiatives on Nov. 8, Shi Wa Xin Ge was mobbed by the Chinese public on whose minds the verdict of California voters on matters such as tenure for public-school teachers did not weigh heavily. Schwarzenegger's action flicks were among the first Hollywood blockbusters that made it to China courtesy of bootleg videotapes, and the nation rewarded the Austrian-born actor by hosting a week-long Arnold Schwarzenegger Film Festival in 2000—the first and only Chinese event of its kind honoring a Western movie star.

Many Chinese are skeptical of President Bush, who will spend three days in China as part of his Asian tour, but that has hardly cooled their ardor for the Governator—few here know that the two are from the same political party or that Arnie mentioned the Tiananmen massacre in his GOP Convention speech last year. "If I lived in California, I'd vote for him," says Liu Tianyu, a project manager for a multinational firm in Shanghai. "I don't know much about his politics, but he has a very charming attitude."

Certainly, Schwarzenegger will need all of his charm when he shifts the trip's focus from selling Californian products—think of all the Napa Valley wine that the Chinese could quaff!—to convincing China to combat the rampant piracy of Hollywood films and Silicon Valley software. On Thursday, the Governor will attend a premiere of the newest Harry Potter movie in Shanghai, although pirated copies of the film are already widely available in the city.

Some Chinese, however, aren't too concerned with Schwarzenegger's Hollywood credentials. Pan Jiancai, a senior advisor at Zhejiang Mingdian Shoe Co., will be dining at Beijing's Great Hall of the People with the Governor and his trade delegation on Tuesday night. "I don't care if he's a movie star," says Pan. "All we want is the chance to exchange name cards with American businessmen." As befits a member of China's emerging entrepreneurial class, Pan puts business ahead of entertainment any day.