What to Make of Jackie Chan?

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It’s only fitting that at a serious-minded event like this weekend’s Boao Forum, which China envisions as a tropical equivalent to Davos, the biggest news would be some ill-considered comments by film star Jackie Chan. Chan told an audience that, “I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not. If you’re too free, you’re like the way Hong Kong is now. It’s very chaotic. Taiwan is also chaotic. … I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.” Chan provoked anger, especially in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where some politicians called his comments insulting to fellow Chinese.

So what to make of Chan’s political ruminations? It’s tough to figure out what he’s talking about, since he doesn’t explain what he means by “chaotic.” Protests in Taiwan and the occasional brawl between the island’s lawmakers are often highlighted in the mainland press as examples of the dangers of democracy. So maybe that’s where he’s going with all this. (See our recent 10 Questions with Chan here.)

There are plenty of retorts, many of them already made, to Chan’s line of thinking. Rather than add to the list, I’ll offer a story. I once interviewed Jackie Chan in Hong Kong. It was an accident. I had gone to a conference on protecting intellectual property rights to track down an expert on the subject. Before I could talk with the expert, I had to sit through a skit that he performed with Chan, who is a spokesperson for anti-piracy efforts. The skit involved Chan driving a scooter onto a stage, chainsawing a stall selling pirated DVDs and ripping fake designer label clothes off the expert. It made for a pretty entertaining skit, despite the expert’s clear lack of acting chops.

But the expert did know his intellectual property law, so after the skit I cornered him for a quick interview. The media folks insisted that I should talk to Jackie Chan too, because he’s Jackie Chan! Midway through our brief chat, Chan called for a bottle of water. He had a problem with the cap, so he asked to borrow my pen, then plunged it through the unopened top. It was perhaps not the best way to open a bottle of water, but it was a pretty impressive, something that would leave an average human with a bloody hand.

I can still recall Chan’s feat, but I can’t remember anything he said during the interview. I didn’t write about him because I wanted an intelligent appraisal of specific aspects of Chinese law, not some celebrity musings. I’d give his insights on freedom and China even less credence. Chan can pull of some impressive tricks of strength and dexterity, but it’s best to not take his thoughts on serious issues too seriously.

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