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Why the Chinese are obsessed with the late Michael Jackson

BEIJING, China — There’s considerably more crotch-grabbing by Chinese impersonators of Michael Jackson than the King of Pop himself ever managed on stage. Clad in drainpipe black, a Chinese Jackson lookalike — miming to Billie Jean — has performed the iconic move more than a dozen times in the past 30 seconds and the crowd is loving it.

Beijing marked the global premiere of “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” new concert documentary with — what else? — an outdoor gala featuring some 60 professional Jackson impersonators.

The Tuesday night event at a Beijing shopping mall was attended by two thousand screaming fans, including arthouse film director Jia Zhangke, actress Jiang Yiyan and other Chinese celebrities. Similar shows were held in 10 other Chinese cities, including Shanghai and Guangzhou.

As the clock struck midnight cinemas across the country screened the film, making China one of the first countries in the world to show it.

The documentary is culled from recordings of Jackson rehearsing for a 50-show comeback tour in London this summer. He died from a heart attack on June 25 before the tour began.

The diehard fans here went wild at every (frequent) moonwalk. Each time an act finished the crowd launched into a chant: “Michael, Michael.”  When the event’s host killed time between performances by relating some Jackson trivia, a fan from the crowd shouts: “This is boring! We want Michael!”

Ma Chunyan traveled more than 24 hours by train from the western city of Lanzhou just to attend tonight’s show. Waving a painting of Jackson above her head she yells: “I love you Michael.”

“I feel he has never left me,” the 26-year-old dancer says solemnly. “He is in my heart.” Next to her a young woman stands sobbing.

Jackson has a huge following in China. “This Is It” premier tickets for Beijing sold out in days, according to state media.

His appeal largely comes from his association with China’s opening and economic reform, which kicked into gear in the 1980s, the height of the gloved one’s popularity.

“Michael Jackson was one of the first foreign mega-stars to have his music widely available in China,” said David Moser, an American professor of Chinese studies and an academic director at Capital Normal University in Beijing. “So there is an entire generation of Chinese who remember him very vividly as an almost legendary character in their past, exactly at a time when they were first becoming aware of the world and coming of age.”

Jackson’s music was also an inspiration for an entire generation of Chinese musicians, said Zhang Rui, the 37-year-old founder of the Chinese Michael Jackson fan club.

“When China was just opening up Chinese musicians didn’t know much about Western music, they didn’t know much about rock and roll. His music was very very fresh at the time, very different from anything they had heard of before. And so we started to try something new. And now we can see many pop singers singing like Michael and dancing like Michael.”

Chinese fascination with Jackson also stems from his fans’ perception of him as someone who genuinely wanted to solve the world’s problems. More than once the guests on stage said they thought Jackson represented hope for peace and the need to solve global problems such as climate change.

“He is very pure, he is very innocent,” said Zhang. “He keeps innocence in his heart, everything around him is very complicated, but that is Michael Jackson.”

And like Jackson fans everywhere, Chinese fans dismiss the negative press including the accusations of child molestation.

Bai Bing, a 28–year-old market researcher from Beijing, said he doesn’t believe any of the scandals.

“He is like a child, he just loves to play with children,” said Bai. “Just listen to his songs. Listen to the words and you can tell he is so kind hearted. He wanted to heal the world.”

If anything, Jackson’s death has catapulted him into even greater fame in China.

Since his heart attack, the Chinese fan club has doubled its membership to almost 80,000 now, said founder Zhang.

The fact that “This Is It” is screening in China at all reflects the man’s importance. Chinese cinemas are only allowed to show a maximum of 20 overseas films a year.

And in their own way, the DVD pirates will also pay their tribute to the King of Pop. By tomorrow evening vendors will no doubt be selling $1 bootleg copies of it on Beijing’s streets.

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