Monday, October 5, 2015

Why Did a Person Display an Upside-Down Chinese Flag in Zhongshan?

A sharp-eyed reader asked a question about this photo from a post featuring people in Zhongshan displaying Chinese flags on National Day:

young man on electric bike with an upside-down Chinese flag

The person is flying the flag upside-down. Does it have any significance there as it does here in the US? Or does it not really matter there?
Similarly, not too far away I saw a street vendor who also had an upside-down Chinese flag. Both cases were atypical. In a more famous case, as captured in a photo shared by the Chinese news agency Xinhua, an upside-down Chinese flag appeared during the opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

photo of boy with upside-down Chinese flag walking with Yao Ming during the opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing

Xinhua's caption to the photo:
Basketball star and flag-bearer of Chinese Delegation Yao Ming and nine-year-old Lin Hao, a pupil fron quake-hit area in southwest China's Sichuan province, parade into the National Stadium at the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, Aug. 8, 2008. According to media reports, when the May 12 tremor struck, Lin Hao risked his life and suffered multiple injuries for rescuing his schoolmates from the collapsed buildings. He was later awarded the title of "Teenage Hero in Earthquake Rescue and Relief." (Xinhua/Liu Dawei)
Some may question how a nine-year-old could qualify as a "Teenage Hero". It may simply reflect an imperfect translation of the Chinese word "qīngshàonián" (青少年) which can refer to a broader age range, such as 10 to 19 years-old, and can also be translated as "adolescent". More people may question how an upside-down Chinese flag could have escaped people's attention during a meticulously planned opening ceremony.

But the biggest question was, similar to the examples I saw in Zhongshan, whether the upside-down flag reflected a simple mistake or a deliberate act, since it can be a sign of distress or political protest. Even if the boy didn't intend to communicate anything negative, perhaps the person who gave him the flag did.

In all of the cases, I don't know the true intentions. However, similar manufacturing/assembly mistakes are not uncommon in China. And the difference between a normal and upside-down Chinese flag doesn't appear to be as visually salient as it is for other flags, such as the flag for the U.S. So people may be less likely to notice or to care. Also, if it were an act of negative expression and widely interpreted as such, all of these people would be taking a huge risk. A recent example of publicly raising an upside-down China flag in protest possibly occurred in Hong Kong, but people can more freely express themselves there.

Personally, without evidence showing otherwise, I would assume the person in the photo from Zhongshan was not boldly expressing himself. I wouldn't say it is impossible he was though.

China should be aware that others make similar mistakes. Not long ago the U.K. government prominently placed two flags at the signing of a trade agreement with China. They correctly oriented China's flag. But they weren't so lucky with their own flag, something which was described as "a terribly British thing to do".

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