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How a first-ever exhibition on Chinese dissent got noticed in India

By Reshma Patil

The Chinese artist offered a firm handshake and his business card. The Indian curator hesitated for a split second. They were, after all, standing in a men’s loo in Gwangju, South Korea.

The curator returned to Mumbai, a financial powerhouse that several Chinese artists in the study group at Gwangju had never heard of. “What is Mumbai?” they asked him. The artist, who happened to know where Mumbai lies, returned to his studio in Beijing. He and the curator communicated via email for over a year. There were long silent gaps, until one day this year, the curator received a parcel of video CDs dispatched from Beijing.

For the first time, Ai Weiwei arrived in India.

It was an odd occurrence. Cultural exchanges between India and China are limited to one-off exchanges and festivals of diplomatically correct art.

The last burst of cross-border cultural exchange happened in 2010 during the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the rivals separated by a boundary disputed since half a century. The stage shows sprinkled with song and dance from the esoteric Kuchipudi to Jai Ho were more political than popular in outreach. I visited an India-China Friendship Exhibition spread on an 11th floor hall in Beijing, where I found myself the lone visitor, staring at paintings on India-inspired themes by dozens of Chinese artists.

Now here I was, shuffling clumsily into the darkened century-old Clark House (nobody now remembers who Mr. Clark was) showing the activist-artist’s videos. The colonial building on the southern seaside of Mumbai used to be the office of a tea export company that cut-price Chinese competitors made defunct in the nineties.

The entrance was lit by Mumbai-based artist Justin Ponmany’s work of two skirt-shaped lampshades with blood-red maps of India and China on each. An engrossed old lady sat on a Shenzhen-made replica of a Ming dynasty hunting chair. “You’re blocking my view,” she complained about my presence before the screen draped on the wall. If she had stayed at home, she would be flicking channels broadcasting the successful trial of India’s Agni-5, a nuclear-capable missile that can reach Beijing and Shanghai.

“We had visitors who spent half a day here, to watch all four films,” said curator Sumesh Sharma who accepted Ai’s handshake in a loo in 2010, when he knew the man as just a co-designer of the Bird’s Nest Olympics stadium in Beijing. China’s best-known activist-artist became a familiar name in Indian newsprint only during his 81-day detention last year.

Exhibition view from left to right of video by Ai Weiwei, prints by Nikhil Raunak, posters from the Cultural Revolution, video by Tushar Joag and print by Atul Dodiya. Photo credit Clark House.

“It indicates a government strangely unsure of its legitimacy, wary of its own people,” said a Hindustan Times editorial last April. “Which is why New Delhi and other capitals are watching China’s external actions so carefully, worrying and watching out for any evidence that domestic paranoia is feeding into foreign policy practice.” The Indian Express ran an op-ed on the “dangerous artist” by Salman Rushdie. But Ai is not as well known in India as in the West. The screenings in the Clark House gallery from April 13-22 last month may have changed that. They called it “Arranging Chairs for Ai Weiwei,” as a gesture to welcome him to India.

An art critic paced upstairs. Foreign tourists came daily in droves. A video of Ai in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, streamed on a computer screen atop an antique table topped with sunflower carvings. A miniature porcelain ensemble of an “animal farm” sat in a dusty box under the computer. The screens were surrounded by works of half a dozen Indian artists, including Tushar Joag, who rode a motorcycle from Mumbai to Shanghai two years ago to make symbolic linkages between controversial great dam projects in both nations.

Sharma discussed the “cultural indifference” and “hostility” one experiences on both sides of the border, especially when forging people-to-people connections. “Our motive to bring Ai Weiwei to India stemmed from a personal want to bridge the cultural indifference to a neighbour with whom we share our longest boundary,’’ he said in a statement.

Rambling through the rooms, one watched Ai and Tan Zuoren’s campaign against “tofu schools” that buried over 5,000 child victims of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008; the controversial case of Yang Jia who was executed for killing six Shanghai policemen and Ordos 100, where architects were invited to design 100 villas on a piece of desert in Inner Mongolia.

Nearly all Mumbai-based newspapers reported the screenings, but the coverage didn’t make direct linkages with India. Students, artists, journalists, and retired neighbors trooped in to sit on the replica hunting chairs, showing that Indians too want to listen to what the Chinese are talking about. It’s just not Peking Opera.

Both the contrasting civil societies are becoming more vocal in asserting their rights in governance. Chinese netizens last year attempted to launch anti-bribery websites modeled on those in India. Chinese bloggers spread the word on the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption campaign last year, noting that Indians, at least, have the right to protest.

“The critique that we often have of India is that it is inefficient and corrupt for [all that] it is democratic and accommodating,’’ said Sharma. “But through Ai’s movies I felt that the state was failing itself initially through corruption and subsequently through repression of people like Tan Zuoren and Ai who uncovered these failures.”

“The relationship between the police and citizens,” he said, “reminds us of the relationship we in India hold with the state.”

Three unidentified Chinese men also came and took a good look. The organizers wondered why they left without revealing their names.

Reshma Patil works as associate editor at the Hindustan Times. She is writing a book on Sino-Indian relations based on her years as the paper’s first China correspondent from 2008-11.

How the world’s largest newspaper market reads Tibet

By Reshma Patil

The runaway from a Tibetan village in Naba, China, led the way down the slippery dirt track to the doorstep of a restaurant with a Potala Palace bereft of tourists and soldiers painted on its blue walls.

The Tibetan-speaking attendant at Chonor House politely declined to serve my first meal in McLeod Ganj. The kitchens were functioning only for hotel guests until the end of Losar. The three-day Tibetan New Year passed uncelebrated earlier this month in the Indian hill-town teeming with Tibetan exiles who give Dharamshala the moniker of Little Lhasa. The exiled Tibetan government is edged higher in the cliff-side of Dharamshala in the former British cantonment of McLeod Ganj.

The symbolic protest, staged through a silent Losar without homemade feasts and multi-coloured prayer flags strung on storefronts, went unnoticed in the national press. Dharamshala is connected to New Delhi by a daily flight from a stunningly secluded runway near the foothills of the snow-capped Dhauladhar range. The airport has more exiled monks and foreigners lugging backpacks than Indian tourists. There is nothing to do if the day’s lone takeoff is delayed; no coffee machine, no magazine rack, just an endless meditative wait.

The exiled Tibetans are waiting for the world to intervene as protests simmer in remote Buddhist monastery towns in China. The bazaar walls in Dharamshala are plastered with bilingual posters for an ‘independent’ Tibet. The posters include grainy pictures of self-immolators, over 20 since last March, some of whom reportedly died shouting slogans for ‘freedom’ and ‘the return of the Dalai Lama’.

Inspired by pamphlets on the Dalai Lama that were scattered in his nomadic village, Tsezin boarded a bus out of his homeland in 2001 and trekked through mountain passes for 28 days to reach Nepal through the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. He was 17 years old when he made it to Dharamshala for Tibetan-style schooling.

We were passing by hawkers of Tibetan handicrafts made in Nepal when he greeted a monk. “He’s the uncle of a nun who self-immolated in China,’’ he pointed out. Such references are now the stuff of street talk in this temple town where a modern building houses the Kirti Monastery, a smaller centre of the restive Kirti Monastery in Sichuan that China has sealed from the outside world.

In 2008, Tsezin briefly experienced the inside of an Indian jail for participating in an anti-China gathering during the Beijing Olympics torch relay. “The security and roadblocks kept us so far away that I could not see the relay,’’ he recalls.

That was the last time the protests of angry Tibetans leaping over barricades outside the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi hit national headlines for several days.

Tibet in the story so far
The newsrooms of India and China—the world’s two largest newspaper markets, with daily sales of 110 million copies in India and 109 million copies in China in 2010—peg news on either other side of the disputed border based on geopolitical national interest.

India is home to over 100,000 exiled Tibetans. But the self-immolations by monks, nuns and nomads receive low-key coverage in the national English newspapers, averaging a story a week.

Tibet gets more column space in breaking news on the statecraft between Beijing and New Delhi. New trends driving the coverage of Tibet in the Indian press developed since the end of the last decade:

‘Southern Tibet’ and the boundary: Chinese scholars privately admit, but do not dare openly express, scepticism about ever acquiring this 90,000 sq km sprawl of mountainous turf that in just sheer size is thrice as strategic as Taiwan for China. Indian scholars note that the state-run Chinese media since 2005 began to tactically reassert Beijing’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh, with more frequent references naming the northeast Indian state as ‘Southern Tibet’. Beijing denies visas to its residents to assert its ownership and gobbles the state in its own digital and printed maps. (See: China gets map wrong, envoy yells ‘shut up’)

A half-century since Asia’s largest nations went to war in 1962, their border dispute remains unresolved. The Indian media is attentive to every move on Arunachal Pradesh, which India claims as an integral part of its territory. In 2009, the Chinese foreign ministry’s objections to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Dalai Lama’s visit to the state sparked a bilateral crisis. In February, Beijing objected to Indian defence minister A K Antony’s visit to the state, which shares a 1080-km long boundary with China.

“Tibet-related issues have for long poisoned the bilateral negotiations on the boundary dispute,” wrote strategist C Raja Mohan in The Indian Express in January. And that is the main story for years to come.

Core concerns: The political potential of India wielding the Tibet card and China the Kashmir card keep the neighbours wary of each other.

In the last three years, Tibet loomed larger as the great upset in bilateral relations. India from 2008 to 2011 argued against China shifting a former ‘neutral’ policy on the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Several Indian citizens from the state, including a northern army commander, began to receive stapled instead of stamped visas to travel to China. The Chinese media largely blacked out the dispute, though it sparked the suspension of military ties for a year. The Indian media incessantly followed up the story, despite the Chinese foreign ministry’s requests to the Beijing-based media to downplay what it labeled as a ‘technical’ disagreement.

Beijing badly misjudged the impact of this stapled visa policy on public opinion in India. New Delhi’s demand for ‘mutual sensitivity’ concerning Jammu and Kashmir (where China occupies 38,000 sq km) in return for recognising Chinese ‘core concerns’ or sovereignty in Tibet and Taiwan received clamorous and approving coverage in India. For the first time, a Sino-Indian joint statement, issued after Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to New Delhi in late 2010, failed to mention India’s ‘one-China policy’ or Tibet, though there was no change in stance. Beijing temporarily stopped issuing stapled visas in 2011.

The Dalai Lama in the middle: China’s growing moves to suppress the international influence of the Dalai Lama, within India, directly impact ties with New Delhi. So recent statements issued in the Party wire, Xinhua, blaming the exiled government for ‘separatism’ were better displayed on Indian news pages than the latest self-immolation coinciding with the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s escape to India in 1959.

Tibet hit national front pages and editorials late last year after Beijing postponed boundary negotiations on the 3,488-km long dispute (2,000-km according to China). Special Representative Dai Bingguo reportedly refused to be in the Indian capital on the same day as the Dalai Lama, who would address a massive Buddhist gathering.

“Beijing has dropped quiet diplomacy in favour of tough-worded demands,” said the Hindustan Times in a December 2011 piece titled “Why the Dalai Lama makes China see red”.

“China has upped the ante on the Dalai Lama because it recognises that he remains a major strategic asset for India,” wrote strategist Brahma Chellaney in the Times of India.

Dai Bingguo wrote a friendly piece in The Hindu to give Beijing better press. The article had a curious line. “There does not exist such a thing as China’s attempt to attack India”.

Strategy: China’s build-up of 58,000-km of roads, the world’s highest airbases and railroads on the roof of the world in Tibet has captivated Indian strategists, Parliamentarians and newspaper readers. Every new listening post nearer to the border gets reported with a pointer to India lagging behind China. The railway minister’s budget speech in March included a call for modern border railroads to upgrade capability to move ‘men and machines’.

Tibetan protests: Dharamshala, though an obvious spot to follow-up the Tibetan protests in China, is in the spotlight of the international media more than the Indian press. For example, see the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal, as well as this at the Economist.

Last month, the Chinese and Indian foreign minister met in New Delhi and agreed to launch the first-ever maritime dialogue. A group of exiled Tibetans protested outside the venue. The protests for ‘freedom’ were temporarily noted, mostly on newspaper websites rather than in print. The frequently protesting Tibetan has become background to the great game between Beijing and New Delhi.

What happens next?
At every bilateral meeting, Beijing demands a reiteration of India’s official policy that anti-China activities on its soil are illegal. Conversations with Tibetan activists in Dharamshala indicate that they want to intensify their campaigns without alienating the hosts.

“I am really concerned that the peaceful Tibetan movement could turn violent if the Chinese crackdown continues,’’ Lobsang Keshi, a Kirti monk in Dharamshala, told the Hindustan Times, in a story trailing recently arrived refugees from remote outposts like Naba and Amdo that are making news for demanding the return of the Dalai Lama.

A few days after the story was published, this writer rang the press officer in the Chinese embassy in New Delhi. The official initiated a dialogue to object on the above report, which included an interview with Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan prime minister-in-exile. The diplomat interpreted the coverage as ‘shaking hand’ with Sangay. This is not how you ‘do business’ with the Chinese. The message: If you interview exiled Tibetans, we won’t talk to you. The writer had called for a news update on Sino-Indian business ties, the most promising aspect of bilateral relations between the fastest emerging economies.

The warning was not so unusual. President Hu Jintao will travel to New Delhi for the BRICS summit later this month.

Reshma Patil is associate editor at the Hindustan Times in Mumbai. She was the paper’s first China correspondent from 2008-11 and is writing her first book on Sino-Indian relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

By Denise Ho

To launch the second semester of the “Year of China,” the University of Kentucky invited John Kamm, founder and director of The Dui Hua Foundation, to be our keynote lecturer. Like our keynote speaker for fall semester, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Kamm’s career has spanned several decades and his work has also been inspired by the student movement in 1989. Unlike Wasserstrom, who offered our students an historical narrative of US-China relations over the long twentieth century, John Kamm offered an eyewitness account. In a public talk on January 30 entitled, “US-China Relations in the Year of the Dragon,” Kamm began with his first visit to China in 1976 (His blog about this first visit can be found at the Hong Kong Economic Journal’s “My First Trip to China” page). Kamm, a businessman-turned-human rights advocate, regaled the audience members with tales of being in China for Zhou Enlai’s funeral and the Tangshan earthquake, recalling the dramatic years leading up to the normalization of US-China relations.

John Kamm speaking at the University of Kentucky

By framing his lecture with the year 1976 and its concurrent transition in Chinese and American leadership, Kamm pointed out that 1976 and 2012 have two things in common: both are dragon years, and in both years China and the US face changes in political leadership. In his talk, Kamm argued that despite the saber-rattling of the Republican candidates (and indeed, President Obama’s State of the Union address) and the polls that show Americans are deeply concerned about the “rise of China,” he has reason to be positive. In his conclusion, Kamm explained that the US-China relationship is “too big to fail.” Citing the volume of two-way trade, the numbers of students from each country studying abroad, and his belief that despite the government, “people like each other,” Kamm expressed a determined optimism.

This spirit of optimism and belief in engagement has sustained his career in human rights. Kamm’s persistence in improving the lives for detainees in China, and his conviction that dialogue is conducive to his mission, is centered on an idea of common interests. As he explained to the students, his work is not unlike that of being a businessman—there is an art in determining what the other party wants (a better political relationship), and an art in convincing him to buy it (by releasing detainees). Two of our students, Jared Flanery and Rick Sellnow, reflect on that theme below.

But apart from the content of the talk and the value of exposing our students to the work of an activist, John Kamm’s visit and speech made me reflect on the Year of China and our mission as teachers. Kamm’s work in human rights serves as advocacy on two levels: he and his organization directly advocate for improved treatment of detainees, and he also advocates for a certain understanding of China as a place and the Chinese as a people. Though it may not always be so clear, our work to teach students about China mirrors this second kind of advocacy. Here in the American South, where our students are often coming to our classes with no background knowledge of China, we generally focus on the bread-and-butter content of the introductory course. Unlike the centers of Sinology elsewhere, we do not have luxury of specialized seminars or departments full of colleagues, and the introductory course may be the only exposure to China studies our students get. Here then our mission should be to advocate understanding, to advocate clear thinking, and to model opinions on China that are based on research and evidence—for our students who will form the public and the relationships about which Kamm is so optimistic.

Finally, the lesson that Kamm’s lecture offered, and that was echoed by other “Year of China” presentations throughout the year, was how to speak to a public audience. For even those students who are in China studies courses at Kentucky form a small minority, and our opportunity to advocate understanding in the wider community is not measured in course credits or semesters but in hours and minutes. That the purpose of a university’s “theme year” is to open dialogue, and that we as teachers must be able to express our “mission statement” as clearly and convincingly as our visiting speakers—remind us that we should be advocates too.

Selling Chemicals or Selling Human Rights

By Jared Flanery and Rick Sellnow

The Mandarin word for human rights, renquan, is well-known for its plasticity. Some officials steer clear of the question of universal rights, and scholars make reference to “Asian values” purportedly less pluralistic than our own. The Euro-American conception of human rights has expanded in recent years from political and civil rights to economic, social, and cultural rights, among others. Although sometimes interpreted liberally, renquan merely refers to the “right to live.”

Yet John Kamm, founder and director of the Dui Hua Foundation for human rights, rejects any narrowing of focus on human rights. Originally an executive for Occidental Chemical Company, Kamm cites international agreements that China itself has signed in his efforts to push for a wider understanding of renquan. As an American businessman working on human rights in China, Mr. Kamm offers a singular example of a powerful individual personality working within trust networks.

Kamm’s transition from the world of business to human rights advocacy follows the narrative of a religious conversion. The crusade began at a 1990 American Chamber of Commerce banquet in Hong Kong. After wining and dining a senior state representative, Kamm offered a surprising toast. “Why don’t you release Yao Yongzhang?” he spontaneously questioned the high-up official. The representative and the American guests present (think Exxon, Hewlett Packard) were all shocked by Kamm’s demand. The president of the American Chamber in Hong Kong, Kamm was one of few advocates for extending Most Favored Nation status to China in the wake of Tiananmen. As such, Kamm’s audacious demand represented one end of a reciprocal relationship. Yao Yongzhang was released about a month after the affair.

Mr. Kamm’s support for religious dissidents is consistent across belief systems; he is responsible for securing the release of Tibetan Buddhists as well as members of the Catholic Underground and Falun Gong. Kamm posits that the Chinese leadership views the outside authority of the Pope or the Dalai Lama as threats because they can present a unique agenda differing from the Chinese state’s own narrative. Kamm contends the Dalai Lama should denounce the self-immolations of Tibetan monks protesting the ongoing Tibet question, now up to at least 19 over the past year. He also mentioned that the Vatican remains frustratingly quiet on the persecution of Chinese Catholics, preferring to allow them to remain imprisoned as martyrs. Instead of “advancing rights through dialogue,” the official slogan of Dui Hua, religious organizations have been content to avoid state relations and appeal to a greater good too ambiguous for Kamm.

Less than ambiguous are the arrests and arbitrary detentions of Chinese citizens, statistics which are housed within Dui Hua’s databases. As Mr. Kamm pointed out, the most common crimes targeted by the Chinese government involve political dissent, specifically subversion, incitement to subversion, splittism, and incitement to splittism. These crimes speak to what some might call China’s political paranoia, unjustly imprisoning the innocent in an attempt to maintain their rule in perpetuity. As Kamm himself explained, certain aspects of the situation are improving. Although still woefully high, executions have decreased by 50% since a 2007 shift in the death penalty prosecution process. Kamm also cited juvenile justice reform, apparently initiated with the help of Dui Hua, and leading to a system closer to that of the United States.

Many would still portray the human rights situation in China as incredibly bleak. Moreover, Nicholas Bequelin, a Human Rights Watch researcher making reference to official US-China dialogue, claimed “such dialogues are often used by governments to justify their lack of engagement and silence on human rights.” In that same article, and during his time here at the university, Mr. Kamm (perhaps surprisingly) agreed. If official state-to-state dialogue becomes a meaningless sham, it should stop. Still, ideological absolutism and refusal to compromise is a two way street. Although Kamm was quick to assure us that he does not act as a representative of his home country, his work has always depended to some degree on the status of US-China relations. Kamm was reluctant to define that relationship as “worsening.” Yet if the Republican primary process is any indication, the dialogue certainly is not getting any better.

Denise Ho is assistant professor of history at the University of Kentucky. Jared Flanery and Rick Sellnow are undergraduates at UK. This article is the third of a four-part series on teaching and learning about China at the University of Kentucky, a public land-grant institution founded in 1865. More information about the “Year of China,” including Denise Ho’s podcast with John Kamm, can be found here.

By Kate Merkel-Hess

Several years ago, I gave a talk on my research to a community group. My first slide included the words “Republican China” and as I waited to begin I heard a woman in the front row lean over and whisper to her neighbor, “I had no idea they have Republicans in China too!”

At this time of bruising primary battles, though, the China that the Republicans have seems more relevant—as China, imagined and real, has played a recurring role in the raucous Republican primaries. Here’s a rundown of some of the ways China has popped up on the campaign trail in recent months:

The Manchurian Candidate
He’s out of the race now, but few China buffs are unaware of the Huntsman-China connection and the many jabs and jokes it spawned. The most infamous is the video created by a group of Ron Paul supporters that intercuts clips of Jon Huntsman speaking Chinese with nasty rhetorical questions about his patriotism and the parentage of his adopted daughters.

Huntsman, who learned to speak Chinese on his Mormon mission in Taiwan and is the former US ambassador to China, was widely panned for speaking Mandarin in the January 7th Republican debate. In an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” former RNC chair Michael Steele said “I thought he was ordering takeout.” Jon Stewart mocked Huntsman and the racist backlash in this clip from the Daily Show (jump to 5:00; and be forewarned: the pronunciation you are about to hear is painful in the extreme):

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Indecision 2012 – New Hampshire Primary Results
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

Meanwhile, “The Relevant Organs” on Twitter (a feed that pretends to be an official PRC mouthpiece) tweeted:

Huntsman, already old news after last week’s withdrawal from the race, is not the only candidate who opponents have attempted to discredit by tying him closely to China. In the final days before the South Caroline primary, one of Romney’s Super PACs set up robocalls that accused Gingrich of supporting funding that, via the UN, paid for “China’s brutal one-child policy.”

China Policy
China has more often been bogeyman than policy debate subject for the Republican candidates, but even in regards to the latter, the China “policies” that have been floated center on well-worn debates over trade and currency, as when Bloomberg reported that Mitt Romney

already knows what he would do on his first day in the Oval Office: crack down on Chinese “cheating” on trade. Romney vows to designate China a “currency manipulator” and impose duties on its imports if the yuan isn’t allowed to float freely.

Even while locals noted that, “We can’t be protectionist; look at who our biggest employers are.”

China came up in the last South Carolina debate as well, when CNN moderator John King asked Rick Santorum how he would bring Apple Computer jobs back (from China) to the US. Santorum’s answer focused on cutting taxes at home. Santorum’s anodyne answer contrasts with economic saber-rattling in debates last fall, as when Santorum declared, “I want to beat China. I want to go to war with China and make America the most attractive place in the world to do business.”

In contrast, Ron Paul has insisted that “we can’t go looking for scapegoats, we can’t blame China” for economic problems at home, noting that China is increasing its influence through investment in other countries, while, he argues, the US has downgraded its influence through foreign military intervention—one of his major campaign themes (jump to 3:20).

China as Analogy
Beyond China realities and policies is China as analogy—what the US could become, given x or y. For instance, this video (also created by Ron Paul supporters, not the campaign) uses an excerpt in which Paul likens American occupation of foreign countries to an imagined Chinese occupation of Texas in order to drive home his views on the provocative nature of American presence abroad.

Meanwhile, Niall Ferguson has called Romney the “technocrat candidate,” drawing comparisons to Chinese political leaders: “These days, the world headquarters of technocracy is arguably in Beijing, where China’s leadership is chosen through a wholly opaque process of inter-apparatchik machination.”

China policy is unlikely to be a deciding issue in this fall’s election, as the state of the economy and other domestic issues loom large. But if the Republican primary soundbites demonstrate anything more broadly, it is that China—whether as real policy or as recognizable stand-in for autocracy, threat, or other civic depredations—is part of America’s political shorthand.

By Adam Cathcart

As an attempt to drain the seemingly endless reserves of paranoia fed by China’s rise, the extension of Chinese “soft power” [ruan shi li 软实力] into Western Europe is one of the more interesting stories of our day. How the Chinese Communist Party uses culture and cultural exchange to shape its image in Europe varies, like any good guerrilla strategy, depending on conditions.
In the performing arts, PRC-sponsored groups tour European stages, acting out a meta-drama that pits twirling autonomous-region Uighurs against the ubiquitous Falun Gong-affiliated Shen Yun ballerinas (and their army of granny pamphleteers). Embassy-sponsored photographic exhibits celebrating modernization on the Tibetan plateau contend with high-buck seminars by the Dalai Lama.

And every so often, a man with the slick hair of fifth-generation CCP leadership will turn up in Europe to remind his variously enthused and recalcitrant constituents that China’s leaders indeed animate culture on the far side of the globe: Witness Xi Jinping in Europe in spring 2010, opening museum exhibitions with the Belgian king, or Wen Jiabao’s evident delight in announcing “German Culture Year in 2012”. These exertions of soft power in Europe are intriguing and significant. They are intertwined with Chinese ascendancy, both in perception and hard fact.

Clearly China can rise peacefully, but can it do so gracefully?

The latter claim seemed very much in doubt over the eleven weeks which lapsed between the April 3 arrest and June 22 release of Ai Weiwei. Ai’s detention, and his ongoing harassment by the authorities, calls into question the very basis of China’s soft power strategy in Europe.

The conventional wisdom has it that the Party was very nervous about Ai’s impact within China and that the arrest was primarily about sending a message to intellectuals and dissidents at home. Plenty of evidence would appear to support such a view, buttressed further still by fears of the tremors from the democracy movements in the Middle East. In an interview with Die Zeit’s Angela Kockritz, one anonymous Chinese artist analyzed Ai’s arrest through the prism of domestic politics, stating:

One has to look at the arrest in view of the timing. The National People’s Congress had just ended, and many young politicians assumed new posts. Their predecessors had left Ai Weiwei in peace, because they treasured his father [patriotic poet Ai Qing]. The new generation wants to signal that this protection no longer exists. [“Ausserst nervoes: Ein Besuch in Ai Weiweis Kuenstlerdorf,” Die Zeit, 7 April 2001]

But no less than a new cadre’s shot across the bow, Ai’s arrest was also made to function within the matrix of the CCP’s cultural-political strategy toward Europe, and became a point of significant tension within Sino-German relations. The ongoing exchanges and underground tug-of-war between Germany and China, those two economic and cultural leviathans, continues, but the case of Ai Weiwei (“der Fall Ai Weiwei”) brought about what can only be called a diplomatic-cultural crisis in Sino-German relations and prompted a number of calls to examine the effectiveness of soft power deployed by both sides.

Ai Weiwei and Germany

The levels of heroism and notoriety enjoyed by Ai in the West are particularly broad and deep in the German media. Before his detention and eventual charges on tax fraud, Ai had become a ubiquitous presence in Germany. His acerbic critiques of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Wenchuan earthquake, internet censorship, architectural practice, and a host of other issues, rapidly elevated him in Germany to the status of China’s foremost dissident, an artist-provocateur who also happened to have a large footprint in Germany. Thus, German writers, artists and casual observers of the Chinese scene had celebrated Ai’s output of exhibitions, interviews, and would-be spark-to-prairie-fire blog posts. After all, he was an artist attempting to free himself from the fetters of a totalizing state, an endeavor with historical resonance in Germany. Ai Weiwei became, in so far as the newspapers were concerned, a man of singular stature and moral weight, comparable in a sense to the limited number of incorruptible and principled intellectuals who had resisted both the blandishments and the torments of the Nazi system and then the German Democratic Republic.

Certainly Ai never held back in his German-language interviews:

Heinrich Bork, “Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei: ‘He Who Lives in a Dictatorship Must Resist’,” Suddeutscher Zeitung, 16 September 2009.

SZ: How common is it for people in China to be hit by police?

Ai: Every day, maybe every second. When they want to oppress you, they often hit you a second time. Some people resist arrest, and on that account they have their legs broken. Others are confined in “guesthouses” which function like a dangerous prison. This year the Chinese Communist Party celebrates the 60th anniversary of our state. They revel in their own radiance [Sie sonnt sich in ihrem eigenen Glanz]. But all fairness, all justice is sacrificed to this system.

Ai’s beating in Chengdu in 2009 and his subsequent rush to Munich for surgery, the exposure to his own blood raised the level of authenticity, self-awareness, and ideas (already well established for a European audience) of the artist as a kind of martyr for self-expression and human rights in China, indicate that the artist had inherited the core of these contrarian characteristics from his father, the poet Ai Qing, in whose Resistance War poetry the notion of a bloody-browed and laughing defiance was prefigured.

His reception in Germany being so warm, Ai voiced a desire to set up a base camp in Berlin, even as, in November 2009, the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs was handling rumors of an investigation into Ai’s finances. Ai’s response at the time was to deflect it all as theater and revel in the adulation from Germany, publishing puff pieces in Munich about his chef, a man for whom “cooking is like calligraphy…[or] sleeping; one doesn’t need to learn how.” However, in the weeks before his arrest, it seems Ai had premonitions that his grace period was up, as related to Heinrik Bork of the Sudddeutscher Zeitung in the last documented interview before his detention.

Ai Weiwei and the “Art of the Enlightenment” Exhibit

When Ai was finally detained amid the modernist arches of the Beijing Capital Airport, he was en route, eventually, to Germany, and sat but a few hundred meters away from German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Westerwelle, too, was on his way back to Berlin after successfully inaugurating the much-celebrated “Art of the Enlightenment” exhibition at the newly renovated National Museum. The exhibition, a tour de force of German humanism and the roots of European democratic thought, seemed to signal a renewed openness, even in the context of the CCP’s recent crackdowns on dissent. Nearly seven years planning had gone into this Kantian Aufschwung, involving cultural contacts on the highest level. If there were ever a Trojan horse to stride up the steps near Tiananmen Square after 1989, this was surely it.

With Ai’s disappearance, the question of German galleries pulling out of the exhibit was raised immediately in the German press. This was hardly a new debate: at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, spectacle and invitations had also at stake and the confrontation over cultural matters and human rights remained unresolved. Museum directors began to muse openly about bringing the Enlightenment exhibition back home to Germany, and German elites wondered how China would make its “German Culture Year in 2012″ anything other than a farce. (There are only so many times, one article noted, that the Chinese axiom “the path is the goal” can rescue one from a dead-end process.) Berlin summoned the Chinese ambassador to issue a rebuke, but no contracts, or exhibitions, were cancelled as a result.

There followed in Germany the usual stable of statements by legislators, defenders of human rights, and defenders of dialogue, contrasted with conspicuous silence from economic interests. At Tacheles, a 798-like art space—itself a monument to technology built in the 1920s, occupied by the SS, bombed in the war, and picked up again as a magnet for free-thinking and -inhaling Berlin left wingers after 1990, now threatened by wealthy developers—someone pinned up a flyer urging people to call the Chinese Embassy in Berlin, ask “Where is Weiwei?” and hang up. The Chinese government was largely silent, employing a strategy of letting adversaries vent and subsequently fragment themselves was generous to the CCP.

The CCP’s press responses quickly took on a pedagogical intent. As in the case of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize ceremony, where Beijing demanded that countries skip the ceremony, the CCP seemed to be using its punishment of an intellectual figure as a means of reinforcing the image of the Party-State’s imperviousness to foreign critique. For the CCP, the desired result perhaps, was foreign opprobrium itself, which—a story was sufficiently spread via oral rumor, then acknowledged and redigested by such leading organs as the Huanqiu Shibao—could be fed into the nationalistic echo chamber of the Chinese internet, thus reminding netizens that external criticism of China’s path forward is not simply unfair, but part of the larger topos of international conspiracy meant to keep China down at any cost.

After biding its time, or after receiving permission to comment from the Propaganda Ministry, on April 16, Huanqiu Shibao placed its article the uproar about Ai Weiwei in a prominent position on its website. In China, a handful of government-approved Netizen comments on the story (they have since been scrubbed away completely) summed up the preferred response nicely:

Who is Ai Weiwei?
What is “Der Spiegel”?
If the West supports it, we must oppose it.
The same countries that criticize us now were part of the 8-power intervention [of 1900]…
Ever since the Opium War…

Ultimately, it appeared that Germany’s economic needs would take primacy over its ability to take a principled stand against Ai’s detention. Articles published in the Berlin Tagesspiegel raged against Germany’s inability to elevate human rights over trade, describing Germany’s total impotence in the case of Ai. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was put in the rather uncomfortable position of having to deny Der Spiegel reports that she had actually called for the release of Ai Weiwei. When Wen Jiabao arrived in Berlin in June, Merkel began their meetings at a Wannsee villa that had once belonged to an artist persecuted by the Nazis. This beautiful bit of political theater was completely lost on the Chinese audience: as the Frankfurt Allegemeine Zeitung ruefully noted, the Chinese media was treating Wen Jiabao’s state visit to Germany—the largest CCP delegation to ever visit Berlin—as no more important than a side trip to Kazakhstan.

In the battle for public opinion over Ai Weiwei, China had may have lost in Germany, but the Chinese state was never particularly interesting in debating the case, and, apart from a few evocative banners hung at Berlin galleries, its cultural ties with German institutions did not appear to suffer. While the Chinese state’s self-descriptions are so often suffused with narratives of humiliation, it appears that the slap had been inflicted mainly upon Germany, at Westerwelle’s opening of the Enlightenment exhibit, without any successful retort. The German Foreign Minister must indeed have leaned back in his Lufthansa chair, looked out into the murky skies, and returned home, leaving his country’s treasures, and the muzzled provocateur, behind in Beijing.

Adam Cathcart teaches Chinese history at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. In addition to his published work on Sino-Japanese and Sino-North Korean relations in the Cold War, he blogs at Sinologistical Violoncellist. Paul Manfredi [], German blogger Just Recently [], Kuroda Chiaki, and D.W. Feldman provided comments on earlier versions of this essay.

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