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Far from Beijing, Chinese transfixed by Games

/ Source: The Associated Press

Perched on a stool beside a roadside fruit stand piled high with melons and pears in farming country north of Shanghai, Meng Zhoucui conceded she’s not a big sports fan.

But like many Chinese who normally wouldn’t pay much attention to sports — or to any other news — Meng said she’s doing her best to keep up with the action 600 miles away in Beijing.

“Yes, sure I’m watching, at night when I have the time,” said Meng, smiling at her husband who stood watching as she spoke. “But he watches during the day and tells me all the latest news.”

In cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, which are hosting Olympics events, cheers are emerging from normally sedate office buildings and crowds ogle big screens in the shopping malls. The obsession with the Olympics is obvious.

If there is any exception, it would be in Sichuan province, where the May 12 earthquake killed nearly 70,000 people and bereaved families just aren’t in the mood to celebrate the majesty of Olympics sports. Liang Sifa lost his 18-year-old son in the disaster that many believe was compounded by shoddy construction and government neglect.

“It’s the 100th day after his death today and the whole family is still overwhelmed,” Liang said by telephone from Beichuan, the epicenter of the 7.9 magnitude quake. ”To us, nothing is interesting and nothing will ever be fun again.”

More than half of China’s 1.3 billion people live in rural communities and don’t have the luxury of attending the games or even watching much of the round-the-clock coverage on state-run television.

Still, even those in the countryside with little time to watch are enthralled by China’s time in the limelight.

“Of course I’m watching. It’s China’s games. Why shouldn’t we watch?” exclaimed shopkeeper Zhou Zhaolin, standing behind the glass counter of his seed store in the region outside Shanghai known as “Subei,” the traditionally poorer half of Jiangsu province, north of the Yangtze River.

NBC reported a huge viewership for the Games opening ceremony, with 34 million Americans watching — but compare that to China, where AGB Nielsen says 387 million people tuned in.

Despite his enthusiasm for the games, the screen on Zhou’s 25-inch countertop TV was black. He said he didn’t have time to watch during the day. “People have to make a living. We can’t just sit around all day,” he said.

August may be a time for vacations for many worldwide, but not for Chinese peach growers, said Jiang Zonghao, a farmer living in the rural Shanghai suburb of Fengxian.

“I’ve got a factory job during the day and a peach orchard to tend every evening,” Jiang said. “It’s peach-picking season right now, so there are so many things to do. Sure, I watched the Olympics opening ceremony and I care about how many gold medals China wins, but frankly I have no energy for the games.”

Dongtai, a county seat about 125 miles north of Shanghai, was not included in the long, circuitous route of the Olympic torch relays. There’s nary an Olympics logo in sight.

Yet the local enthusiasm for the games is evident.

One of Zhou’s neighbors wanders into his store, announcing that China just beat Belarus 77-62 in women’s basketball, giving the home team a chance to add yet another gold medal to its already record-breaking tally.

Figures compiled by Nielsen Media Research bear out the popularity of the games in China — though mainly for those involving Chinese athletes. Viewership in the 14-region area that AGB Nielsen monitors has been between 80 to 90 percent since the Olympics began Aug. 8, said Sophie Gu, the company’s public relations manager in China.

Relative prosperity has come only recently to Dongtai, partly because of a newly opened bridge allowing traffic to cross the Yangtze by road, rather than ferry.

Just a few years ago, rural homes with dirt floors were common. But new roads and construction projects, and money from migrants working in Shanghai, have brought running water and modern homes equipped with solar panel water heaters.

Closer ties between farmers and the cities mean more opportunities to earn money. In Subei, even in the heat of August when the rice is all planted and the harvest is months away, there’s plenty of work to be done.

Young women sit spinning silk thread in the breezy ground-floor rooms of their two- to three-story cement and brick homes. Men, bare to the waist in the stifling heat, lay bricks, hoe fields and shuffle shucked corn kernels to ensure they all get dried by the sun.

Spread on the cement in front of practically every home and shop are mounds of homegrown corn, huge scarlet peppers and greenish-brown “tiancai,” a sweet herb used to make candy.

“We sell this to the candy makers and get a good price for this,” said Zhou, offering a leaf to taste.

At twilight, families work at gathering the piles of corn in bags, or covering it with plastic sheets to protect it from rain and dew. When that’s finally done, most spend a bit of time sitting outside chatting and watching the children play. Only later, before bed, do they turn on the television.

“Yes, I do watch, but only later,” said Meng, the fruit seller, smiling shyly. “We sometimes stay up until 1 a.m. watching.”