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Iron-fisted push for cultural clout

November 8, 2011

(The International Herald Tribune - Asia Pacific edition)
 Saturday, November 05, 2011,

NEWS ANALYSIS Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

One artist said exhibition officials at Songzhuang, above, told him ‘‘the
situation this year is tense and no sensitive topics are allowed.’’

Last month, the cream of the Communist Party leadership gathered here to
proclaim a national effort to make China a cultural tastemaker, one whose
global creative clout matches its economic clout. ‘‘A nation cannot stand
among great powers,’’ the official party newspaper People’s Daily said on
its front page, ‘‘without its people’s spiritual affluence and the
nation’s full expression of its creativity.’’ The question is how to
square that goal with what just happened to Yue Luping. Mr. Yue, a
professional artist for more than 10 of his 36 years, was preparing his
works for an exhibition in the Shunyi district of north Beijing two weeks
ago when government officials and police officers abruptly canceled the
entire show. The next day, he said, agents of the local Public Security
Bureau interrogated him about one work, a collection of peppercorns
arranged to form numbers. Security officers had already photographed the
piece, studied it for an entire night and consulted cryptography experts
to divine the work’s message. As they eventually discovered, the numbers
were a computer language, Unicode, spelling five phrases that Chinese
censors have banned from the results of Internet search engines. And the
pungent peppercorns were a metaphor for what Mr. Yue called people’s undue
sensitivity to ordinary words. ‘‘It’s very ironic,’’ he said in an
interview this week. ‘‘On the one hand, they want to boost cultural
development. And on the other, they call off our exhibition.’’ Ironic is
one way to describe it. But viewed against the language of the party’s
declaration on culture — the Oct. 25 report on the annual Central
Committee plenum, held last month — there is not much inconsistency at
all, some analysts say. Rather, they suggest, the leaders’ approach to
building a world-class culture is not all that different from the one that
powered China’s economic miracle: set a long-term goal, adopt rigid
specifications, pour in copious amounts of public money. Monitor closely
to ensure the desired result. In this case, as the report repeatedly
stated, the specifications are to adhere to ‘‘core socialist values’’ in
cultural activities. The desired result is ‘‘to build our country into a
socialist culture superpower.’’ The monitoring affects artists like Mr.
Yue, or Yu Jianrong, a painter and photographer whose works — on the
petitions prepared by thousands of ordinary Chinese annually whose
grievances have been ignored by the government — were banned last weekend
from exhibition in Songzhuang, a suburban Beijing artists’ colony. Mr. Yu
declined to be interviewed. But The South China Morning Post, based in
Hong Kong, quoted a microblog post, since deleted, in which Mr. Yu wrote
that Songzhuang exhibition officials had told him that ‘‘the situation
this year is tense and no sensitive topics are allowed.’’ The Songzhuang
exhibit, which opened last weekend, actually did display some provocative
works about China’s new materialism, its military and even its restricted
freedom. But with rare exceptions, they were couched in ambiguities and
subtle metaphors. Such tales show that there is nothing ironic about the
current censorship, said Zhang Ming, a political science professor at
Renmin University of China. ‘‘The government is overconfident about
controlling art,’’ he said. ‘‘They think as long as they provide money and
they provide a value orientation, there can be good art produced. This is
not surprising at all, because they have never experienced the process of
free expression.’’ In that view, the notion is lost on Chinese leaders
that a great culture — whether in painting, science or journalism — rests
on people’s ability to push the boundaries of creativity, no matter whom
it offends. There is much to support that view, from the arrest last April
of the internationally famous artist and dissident Ai Weiwei to the
banning of literature like ‘‘The Fat Years,’’ Chan Koonchung’s bleak
depiction of a China-dominated future. Not a few officially approved
commentaries cast Chinese culture as a sort of zero-sum contest with
rivals. Xinhua, the state news agency, described the challenge last month
as an ‘‘international cultural competition,’’ as if controlling the world
stage is one more hurdle to sweatily surmount on the Ironman Triathlon
toward global greatness. ‘‘Chinese cultural companies have yet to produce
a world-famous brand,’’ that commentary groused, offering a litany of
shortcomings: China’s television programs have an ‘‘embarrassing’’ export
record; its total published literature does not approach the output of a
single German firm, Bertelsmann. Most embarrassing, the 1998 animated film
‘‘Mulan,’’ based on a Chinese heroine, was produced by Disney studios in
California. ‘‘China has yet to produce an animated film as internationally
successful,’’ the commentary stated. Said Mr. Zhang, the Renmin University
professor: ‘‘They never realize that the problem lies not in quantity, but
in quality.’’ There is an alternative view of the party report last week
on culture, one that hints at a less rigorous official stance. That view
points to other snippets of the report — led, curiously, by a famous
statement by Mao Zedong, the leader whose Cultural Revolution plunged
China into years of repression and torment. But before that, in 1956, Mao
made a famous speech in which he summoned ordinary Chinese to speak out
about their needs. ‘‘Let a hundred flowers bloom,’’ he said, ‘‘and a
hundred schools of thoughts contend.’’ The report repeated those words
verbatim, citing them as a guiding principle for China’s cultural
development. Other passages call for an ‘‘opening and reform’’ in China’s
cultural development, echoing the economic opening to the rest of the
world that prompted China’s economic growth in the last two decades. Liang
Xiaosheng, an author and a government-appointed member of China’s
legislative advisory body, said this past week that Mao’s statement and
other clauses in the report were a muted call for more artistic freedom,
at least in the long haul. ‘‘In China, the policy won’t be quickly carried
out because the executors need a digesting and understanding process,’’ he
said. ‘‘Even a small step for China may take as long as 10 years.’’ Or
longer. Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign was a disaster. Freed to say their
piece, intellectuals denounced government repression and incompetence, and
party leaders quickly reverted to curbs on freedom of expression. It may
not be lost on the creative community that Mao quickly replaced his
Hundred Flowers Campaign with an Anti-Rightist Movement in which hundreds
of thousands of intellectuals were stripped of their jobs and many sent to
labor camps. Mao later said he had been seeking to ‘‘lure the snakes from
their den’’ in order to cut off their heads. In China, then as now,
liberalization and crackdown reliably, if unpredictably, ebb and flow.
Which may help explain one genuine irony: When asked, some of the artists
who organized the Shunyi and Songzhuang exhibitions chose to pretend that
their colleagues were not censored at all. ‘‘There is some
misunderstanding going on,’’ Shen Qibing, an organizer of the exhibition
that was to have shown Mr. Yue’s peppercorn art, said by telephone. ‘‘The
exhibition was called off because more and more artists are trying to sign
up for the exhibition, and we feel we have a lot of work to do.’’ In
Songzhuang, Chen Honghan, a 40-year-old artist who helped organize the
show, had a ready explanation for the absence of Mr. Yu’s works on
petitions. Lots of artists were denied spots in the exhibition, he said.
There was not enough space. And as for government censorship? ‘‘It never
happened,’’ he said. ‘‘Some of the artists try to exaggerate things.’’ Shi
Da and Edy Yin contributed research.

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