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Chinese Kites, Imaginations Soar

JUDGING from the fervor at the Third Beijing International Kite Fair, China's embattled regime could avert unrest by just telling its restive citizenry to ``go fly a kite!'' Hundreds of amateur earthbound aeronauts from China and abroad sailed kites during a six-day festival last week.

The fair is one example of how the leadership uses sports and pastimes to distract Beijing residents from high inflation, pay cuts, graft, and human rights abuses.

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Beijing leaders in recent weeks have tried to whip up public enthusiasm for the 11th Asian Games next fall by deploying brass bands and adorning the capital with red banners and propaganda fliers. They have also enlisted kites.

Still, as communist parties are on the retreat worldwide, China's leadership deems even kite fliers as potential rabble-rousers. City officials, anxious about unrest during the many anniversaries of last year's pro-democracy movement, canceled a gathering by the vicarious soarers in Tiananmen Square.

``I don't think kites themselves can overthrow a government, but officials were concerned the kites would draw a crowd and create a disturbance like last spring,'' says Zhou Xiangshan, leader of an 11-man kite-flying team from the national railways branch in Xuzhou.

Perhaps the leadership knows that, amid widespread discontent, few pastimes will turn the attention of Chinese from down-to-earth gripes to high-flown fancies as well as kites.

``When my kite rises in the air, I feel like I'm flying above all my problems on earth,'' says Chen Yanling, a railway conductor from Xuzhou. He quickly turns away to grapple with the two lines attached to a formidable airborne problem, a 30-yard-long flying paper train with a black locomotive and 60 green carriages.

Fellow railroadman Wang Zhongyu views his kite more philosophically.

``When I open my mouth and look up at the sky at my flying kite, I breath in heaven and feel absorbed by nature,'' Mr. Wang says, letting the wind from the Gobi Desert lift his orange winged horse of bamboo and silk skyward.

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``China is par excellence the land of kites,'' says ``Things Chinese,'' an encyclopedia of popular culture in China first published in 1898.

China's mandarins, showing an unsurpassed understanding of wind and draft, fluttered their first kites aloft in the seventh century, about 900 years before the West. Today in China, kites are the stuff of grown-ups as well as youngsters.

``In the United States kites are simple and they're only for kids. But here we fly complex kites that take a lot of skill, and we're carrying on an ancient tradition,'' Wang says. Riding on green wings, his horse bucks among the riot of blue phoenixes, red dragons, white moons, golden eagles, brown cicadas, yellow carp, and other handcrafted kites wheeling around the Temple of Heaven, an ancient shrine where emperors appealed for heavenly favors.

Gu Deshun, a retiree from Weifang, clutched the string on a three-dimensional, yard-long kite resembling a pair of pink baby booties. The kite with the words ``Longevity - 100 Years'' celebrates the tradition of giving pink tiger-head booties to 100-day-old babies as a promise of long life. ``With this kite I wish all the babies in China to live a long life,'' Mr. Gu says with a gap-toothed smile.

Although China's leaders see kites as the tools of potential subversives, perhaps they too could find catharsis in kites. According to China's folklore, when the string of a soaring kite is cut, it carries away all the threats to its flier on its whirling tumble to the ground.

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