'I am happy ... but need a long, long holiday'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2008, 12:00am

A symbol of defiance against pro-Tibet protests finds the role of a heroine is not easy

For Jin Jing, the roller coaster from serene obscurity to national fame took just a fortnight and has been a mixed blessing.

The 27-year-old wheelchair-bound amputee became the symbol of China's defiance against proTibet-independence protests, after she was forced to shield the Olympic torch amid the chaos of the Paris leg of the relay two weeks ago. The moment was captured on camera, distributed by an amateur photographer and became a rallying point for the country's indignation.

But the former fencer, one of the mainland's 19,400 carefully selected torch-bearers, has found that being anointed a national heroine has its downside.

The already intense attention on her reached new heights yesterday when visiting French Senate president Christian Poncelet extended her an invitation to return to Paris. The invitation on behalf of President Nicolas Sarkozy is an apparent bid by his administration to appease the Chinese public infuriated by the torch fracas, which they viewed as an insult to their national pride.

'I'm happy to receive President Sarkozy's invitation,' Jin said yesterday, carefully choosing her words and refusing to hint whether she would refuse or accept.

'You have to ask the Foreign Ministry for the answer you want.'

A public outcry had greeted her earlier appeal for calm amid the widespread call to boycott French supermarket chain Carrefour. Critics accuse it of supporting Tibet independence - although the company strongly denies it.

Surveys in popular Chinese online communities already suggest overwhelming opposition to her accepting Mr Sarkozy's invitation.

In a well-scripted meeting between Jin and Mr Poncelet at the Shanghai Sports Training Centre for the Disabled yesterday, authorities were keen to head off a real diplomatic crisis.

Jin was 'advised' by foreign ministry staff not to mention the Paris incident in her prepared address to the meeting, according to a family source. Government-backed analysts also urged Jin to accept the invitation and help ease the now tense Sino-French ties.

'I think her trip back there would be instrumental in bridging the gap in trust between the two peoples,' said Feng Zhongping, director of the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations, a Beijing-based think-tank affiliated with the central government. 'I have to say it's something unprecedented in China's history that the resolution of a diplomatic crisis relies so heavily on an ordinary citizen.'

But the task might be too much for an unemployed young woman, whose life until very recently centred on playing World of Warcraft, a popular online video game.

'All I need is a long, long holiday,' Jin said. 'But it's not under my control any more.'

Very little seems within her control. After being axed by the Shanghai wheelchair fencing team late last year, she somehow has found herself back on its payroll.

Jin gave up her previous full-time job as a hotel switchboard operator to meet the demands of training, and now dozens of companies have rung up to tout juicy endorsement deals or offer jobs.

Prying reporters infiltrated her apartment without her knowledge, messing around in her bedroom and grilling her baffled parents about whether she has a boyfriend.

She will have to make stops in three cities in different corners of the country on different commitments in the next couple of weeks, an extension of her non-stop schedule since returning from Europe.

There is no promise of a break until after the greeting of the Olympic flame in Sanya, Hainan, where the torch she defended in Paris makes its first stop on the mainland.

Jin has remained cool and articulate in front of the cameras but, in private, people close to her are concerned about her welfare.

'She is somewhat lost with all these political and business offers,' a friend said. 'She has done a good job so far, but it's obviously not a life she yearns for.'