Archive for June, 2011

Ai Weiwei

by Barbara Pollac

Ai Weiwei is back home in his gray brick studio complex in Beijing, but that hardly means he’s free. After 80 days of detention in an unknown location with no formal charges brought against him, he has been released on bail, having “confessed to tax evasion and destroying documents,” according to Chinese news agencies. His first words to reporters meeting him at his doorstep gently informed them that he cannot give interviews. For the next year, he will be carefully watched, unable to leave Beijing, most probably unable even to tweet, until his case is finally resolved.

The Chinese term for Ai Weiwei’s status is “guobao houshen,” literally meaning “obtaining a guarantee pending trial.” This is “excellent news and perhaps the very best outcome that could have been expected in the circumstances of this difficult case,” posted international human rights lawyer Jerome Cohen after the release. It allows the Chinese government to save face and retain control over the artist, while he remains free and unindicted for the next year. Ai Weiwei will have to pay back taxes and perhaps pay a fine — his family has maintained his innocence — but he will probably avoid a prison sentence.

This result is remarkable, given the widespread arrests that have taken place this year, as China has tried to insure control against a “Jasmine Revolution” like the widespread unrest in the Middle East. Four of Ai Weiwei’s colleagues that were picked up at the time of his detention are still missing, though they may soon be released. Thousands of others remain unaccounted for. “The past 18 months have set China back 20 years,” Phil Tinari, editor of LEAP magazine, said to me when we met in Hong Kong during the art fair in May.

Many are citing Ai Weiwei’s release as proof of the effectiveness of the international campaign undertaken to protest his detention. Kudos must go out to the museums — Tate, Guggenheim, Museum of Modern Art, Asia Society — that launched a massively successful petition, gathering over 140,000 signatures online. I was surprised that these institutions took a stand at all, given their widespread dealings in China and their usual cooperation with the Chinese Ministry of Culture. Anish Kapoor’s refusal to loan to a show at the Ullens Center of Contemporary Art, which earlier this year had cancelled an exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s work, was a prime example of steps an individual artist could take in protest. In turn, politicos including Hillary Clinton and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke out on behalf of the artist.

While the Chinese government is usually immune to such pressure — just look at the case of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who remains in detention — it is telling that Ai Weiwei’s release came just days before Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s trip to Europe. He was sure to be met with cries of outrage over the artist’s situation. Certainly, Chinese officials wanted to avoid such embarrassment.

But in the current situation, China is in a win-win position. On my recent trip to Beijing, I found that the official smear campaign, tainting Ai Weiwei with charges of tax evasion, had already done its damage. Many artists told me that they did not want to comment on the artist’s “troubles,” and some accepted the very Chinese belief that this artist, perceived in the west as a hero, is a maverick who deserves what he gets. Only a few would admit that probably every famous artist in China could be charged with tax evasion, with many working on schemes to shield their millions from the government’s coffers. Not one leading artist of the older generation — not Zhang Xiaogang, Zhang Huan, Cai Guo Qiang or Zeng Fanzhi — spoke out on Ai Weiwei’s behalf. Xu Bing, a MacArthur Foundation prize-winner and now vice chairman at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, who many think aspires to be China’s next minister of culture, openly said that he was not interested in politics when asked to comment on Ai Weiwei’s case.

Only among younger artists, those born after 1980, many of whom look up to Ai Weiwei, did I find support for the belief that he had been framed, with the charges trumped up to silence him and his incessant agitation on Twitter. Ai Weiwei had a huge Twitter following of over 60,000 in Chinese, though the site is not available in China. Younger artists know how to get around the Great Firewall and get access to his tweets. Though they might not have the courage to engage in social activism themselves, they certainly appreciate Ai Weiwei’s stance. In the days after his detention, hundreds of young artists changed their profiles on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Facebook, to a picture of Ai Weiwei in a gesture of solidarity. Hugo Boss Prize nominee Cao Fei, who currently has a show at Lombard Fried in Manhattan, was one of the few Chinese artists to sign the petition asking for his release.

But despite Ai Weiwei’s release, it is not the time for western institutions — many of whom are now preparing to capitalize on the artist’s fame with exhibitions, some impromptu, some years in the works — to back off from pressure on the Chinese government. American museums, anxious to secure loans or to ship shows to China, have too often worked side-by-side with the Ministry of Culture. Much of this cooperation has accompanied the belief that quiet diplomacy could liberalize the situation in China. But too often, as with the British Museum’s recent decision to eliminate nudes from a show on world culture going to the National Museum of China in 2012, western museums have exercised self-censorship to avoid conflicts with the Chinese.

I, for one, am not calling for a boycott of China, which I believe would only result in a return to the isolationism of 30 years ago. Chinese artists deserve to see exhibitions from the west and we have also benefited from loans from the PRC to the United States.

But it is time to reexamine cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, especially in light of Ai Weiwei’s current situation.

Hans Ulrich Obrist has declared that Ai Weiwei’s online activism is his form of social sculpture and his most potent form of art making. If so, now is not the time to lessen the pressure to restore his freedom to communicate with the world. While museums from Asia Society to the Hirshhorn plan Ai Weiwei exhibitions of his photographs and sculptures, we cannot ignore that his online oeuvre — the least marketable and institution-friendly aspect of his work — is being silenced. Until now, western museums have rarely demanded that the Chinese respond to calls for freedom of expression. With the case of Ai Weiwei, such a demand is unavoidable. If this aspect of Ai Weiwei’s fight is ignored, all the Western museum exhibitions amount to little more than a pile of sunflower seeds.

BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).


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China’s future

Rising power, anxious state

Tensions between China’s prosperous middle classes and its poor will make it a harder country to govern

Jun 23rd 2011 | from the print edition

AMONG those with most to celebrate as the Chinese Communist Party marks its 90th birthday on July 1st are the country’s bourgeois reactionaries. Perhaps now the most important pillar of the party’s support, China’s middle class was virtually non-existent until it was recreated in the late 1990s. So far, the communists have amply fulfilled their side of a tacit bargain in which well-off city-dwellers have traded political choice for fast-growing prosperity. But as the economy slows over the next decade, the party will struggle to keep its word. Indeed, peace and prosperity may depend on the very sort of political reform the party has tried so hard to avoid.

An affair to remember

In the past 15 years the middle classes have supported the party because of what it has done for them. Its rule has produced incredible economic progress, asserted China’s rightful role as a global power and, crucially, kept the country from falling back into the chaos that plagued it during so much of the 20th century. The post-Communist travails of the former Soviet Union have been valuable as what the party used to call “teaching by negative example”.

Related topics

However, the love affair between a party that calls itself the vanguard of the proletariat and its actual, middle-class supporters is now under threat. At the root of this is an inevitable slowing in economic growth. As our special report on China in this issue explains, the first decade of the century, with its relentless double-digit growth, may well have seen the peak of China’s economic exuberance. A sudden crash is not impossible: there could be a botched attempt to tackle either the property bubble or what the prime minister calls the “uncaged tiger” of inflation (now at 5.5%, its highest level in nearly three years). But an immediate upset is still unlikely: inflation is not yet out of control, still far below the 27.7% it reached in 1994. The danger is more in the medium term: growth will inevitably slow over the next decade, as China settles into its status as a middle-income country, and the burden of caring for an ever larger number of elderly people in a slower economy may make middle-class life far more uncomfortable.

To compensate, the party will have to usher in wrenching change. It is struggling to shift China away from the current unsustainable model, where growth is propelled by vast investment and export-led manufacturing, towards one where domestic consumption plays a bigger role. The country still has a long journey ahead in its efforts to build health-care, pension and social-security systems to reassure citizens: all of these are necessary to persuade the middle class to save less.

In addition, China’s state-owned businesses have an insatiable appetite for capital, which many of them waste. Curbing state companies means taking on all of the well-connected people who ride on their coat-tails, including parts of the middle class. The party’s creed (“Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought”) means nothing to most such people. The party is secretive about recruitment to its 80m-strong ranks. But an official report in 2008 said that, of new applicants for membership, by far the biggest category comprised university students over the age of 18. Although the decision by these young careerists to sign up shows the party’s clout, they have very different ambitions from those of the old ideologues.

The party will also have to work harder to sustain the urbanisation that has fuelled the economy. China has done the easy part: attracting underemployed young rural residents to urban jobs. But the supply is beginning to slow. It would help if farmers could sell or mortgage their rural land and use the money to help gain a stronger foothold in the cities. But the party remains overly fearful of privatising farmland, partly for atavistic fears of a destitute peasantry, and partly for ideological reasons.

Worse still, the system of household registration, or hukou, defines even long-staying urban migrants as rural residents, cutting them out of housing, education and other benefits. No wonder that the migrants are increasingly restive. Of the tens of thousands of protests each year, most are still rural, typically by farmers enraged by inadequate compensation for land appropriated for development. However, urban unrest, such as recent riots by factory workers in the southern province of Guangdong, is now more common. If the party is to keep the peace in cities and if it is to continue to attract migrants in sufficient numbers, it needs to find ways to turn them into full-fledged city-dwellers, with the consumer power to match.

Of taxation and representation

Here it runs up against the middle class most directly. To give migrants the same housing and other benefits as urban hukou holders, and to build a proper social safety-net will be expensive. And if more tax is the solution, then the middle class could well begin demanding a greater political say.

That is a day the party dreads. Since the nationwide student-led protests of 1989, the educated urban elite has mostly been politically quiescent. But the party fears them far more than it does unruly farmers or migrants. Beijing’s centre was flooded with police earlier this year when calls for an Arab-style “jasmine revolution” circulated on the internet.

The middle class’s anxieties have not yet fermented into a broader anti-government rage. But then the inevitable erosion of some of their privileges has barely begun. If the bourgeoisie does start to protest, the party will be faced with an old dilemma: liberalise or step up repression. All the evidence of the past—and of the recent crackdown—is that it will choose repression. But that in itself may help politicise the middle class. In other Asian countries a taste for democracy has risen with income; and repression would mean withdrawing freedoms from people used to their liberty gradually increasing.

In 2012 the party’s leadership—and the task of managing these tensions—is to pass to a new generation. The most recent leadership transition, in 2002, went smoothly. But every previous generational shift in the party’s 90 years has been chaotic, and, a decade on, the tasks faced by the leaders who took over in 2002 look almost easy by comparison with today’s.

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Business and management


Chinese mass transit

On the right track

Jun 22nd 2011, 10:45 by T.E. | HONG KONG

ALTHOUGH it may not be front-of-mind-news for five-sixths of the world’s population, 2011 is the year of the XXVI Universiade Games, with the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen having the summer portion (and Ezurum in Turkey the winter). For China there is nothing like hosting a international event to serve as a catalyst for yet another mass transport project.

So, on June 16th, with the games less than a month away, Shenzhen cut the ribbon on a much-needed $HK7 billion ($900m) extension of its metro system. The new stretch spans 16 kilometres and 10 stations, and knits together the other main Shenzhen lines. But its real importance has less to do with what was created than how.

The builder is MTR Corporation of Hong Kong, the part-privatised company that runs the territory’s remarkably efficient and clean metro system (pictured). That MTR also owns a huge property portfolio is almost certainly a core issue in its involvement with Shenzhen.

Back in 2004, as part of a strategic effort to expand beyond Hong Kong, MTR commissioned a report from a local university on transit systems in many of the world’s largest cities, which observed that “railway investment is not financial viable on its own.” Not long after MTR’s founding in 1975, the parsimonious colonial administration which then ran the territory came to a similar conclusion, and decided to finance the construction of a subway system through simultaneous grants of adjacent property. It was, in essence, a trade of movement below for land above, a model that has been used successfully in Japan and, a century ago, in America as well.

The results have not been entirely successful. Some of the MTR projects reflect the worst of bleak government architecture but over time its portfolio has become a bit smarter; and these property holdings, along with the lease of advertising space, now account for more than 60% of MTR’s revenues and presumably all of its very healthy profits, as well as providing the financial strength to support its spotless metro service.

Metro mania
China has taken an alternative road. Having for decades largely neglected the need for efficient light-rail systems as its cities grew, it is now in the midst of metro-mania. Last year the number of subway carriages in service across the country grew by 50%, with more than 30 cities in the process of building new metro lines. In almost every case, the financial model has been to provide direct government subsidies.

Fares are low, from 2 yuan ($0.31) in Beijing to as much as 14 yuan for extended trips in Guangzhou. Losses are not publicised but there have been hints. The Beijing system reportedly received 14 billion yuan in subsidies last year, not including contributions towards its construction expenses. Part of the Shanghai system comes under a public company, Shentong, but it too does not disclose the cost of its construction debt; it may in practice be largely forgiven. Shenzhen’s system, according to the South China Morning Post, faces a deficit of 22 billion yuan over five years. None of the Chinese metro systems is considered remotely profitable.

MTR has said it will operate the Shenzhen line under a concession agreement, implying that its operating costs will be covered by government subsidy if not fares. The China Daily says the initial intention was that there would have been a Hong Kong-style property transfer, but that this was dropped. However, the South China Morning Post says it is very much on the table. MTR itself is a bit vague on the matter: it says there are ongoing discussions and both sides have always been aware of the tie between operating costs and property development.

There is, apparently, an eight-hectare plot, alongside a depot, reserved for MTR to develop. But transfers of property are so sensitive in China it may not be possible to discuss such a thing publicly. Of course if the terms of the property transfer are kept hidden, Shenzhen’s citizens will not know whether they are getting a fair deal, or indeed whether any profits from the property development are being applied in the way the deal specifies.

How Shenzhen ends up financing its metro extension—direct subsidy or property transfer—may also give a clue as to the broader direction of China’s political development. The city is famous for its experiments in market-oriented government; it would be a bad sign if, even there, China can no longer tolerate such experimentation.

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An insight into the Chinese way of thinking.

China replicating Western towns

Thames Town is a typically idyllic British town. You can’t miss the red phone booths or telephone boxes as the Brits call them. You can see the odd London taxi or black cab, and then, of course, there is the local Tudor-style pub with real ale – lovely for a summer holiday, right?

So how do you get there?

Well, don’t go to England. Thames Town is not by the River Thames. It is by the Yangtze in China. Thames Town is one of a group of new townships outside Shanghai that are all built on the theme of another country.

Now, we stumbled on the story when we learned that while the Brits might be flattered, the Austrians got quite upset when they heard about plans to copy one of their famous towns. China is reportedly building a replica of the Austrian town of Hallstatt, complete with winding roads and a lake.

What I would love to find in China is a beautiful replica of a traditional Chinese village, but these have become almost impossible to find nowadays.

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Independent candidates for elections appear to be a spontaneous step too far for the Communist Party Jun 16th 2011 | BEIJING | from the print edition “A LIVE-FIRE exercise in democracy” is how one of China’s sparkier newspapers hailed a recent move by dozens of citizens to promote themselves online as independent candidates in forthcoming local elections. Communist Party officials, unnerved by Arab revolutions and sporadic unrest in the provinces, are far less jubilant. Voting rituals long choreographed by the party suddenly face a new challenge from the internet. Elections at the lowest tier of China’s multi-layered parliamentary structure are the only ones in which citizens can directly vote for their legislators. But the party likes to leave nothing to chance. Citizens can, in theory, stand for election with support from ten fellow constituents. In practice, the party usually ensures that only its endorsed candidates make it to the shortlist. Ordinary Chinese often refer to the “people’s congresses”, as the legislatures are called, as mere ornamental “flower vases”. So a flurry of internet-fuelled enthusiasm for such polls has attracted considerable attention, including in some state-owned media (to the disquiet of propaganda officials, say Chinese journalists). Li Fan of the World and China Institute in Beijing, thinks that more than 100 people have declared themselves as candidates in recent weeks for elections for people’s congresses that are due to be held around the country in the coming months. They have mustered support using microblogging tools such as Sina Weibo, a hugely popular Twitter-like service. Related topics Beijing China Even a hint of spontaneity in legislative elections can make the party squirm. In 1980 the first experiment with such polls led to heated campaigns on campuses. Officials intervened to block outspoken candidates from winning seats. Six years later, attempts to exclude independent candidates from local elections prompted student protests. The crackdown on the Tiananmen Square unrest in 1989 all but ended activists’ efforts at the ballots until 2003, when a slightly more liberal atmosphere encouraged dozens from the newly emerging middle classes to run. But when elections were held three years later, the party stifled media coverage. Now, despite a sweeping crackdown on dissent this year involving the arrest of dozens of activists, the party is finding it harder to impose silence. A surge in online social networking has enabled citizens to connect instantly with vast numbers of like-minded people. Intellectuals and journalists with high profiles online are among those who have declared their candidacies. Li Chengpeng, an author and social critic in Sichuan province, has more than 3m followers of his Sina Weibo account. In a message posted on June 15th Mr Li wrote that a policeman had said he would vote for him, with many fellow officers wanting to follow suit. The emergence of these candidates has coincided with a spate of local disturbances in different parts of the country. They make the party, which is preparing to celebrate its 90th birthday on July 1st, all the more anxious. In Zengcheng, a town in Guangdong province that manufactures jeans, thousands of police appear to have quelled days of rioting which broke out on June 10th after an altercation between security guards and a migrant street vendor. This came after rioting in Lichuan in Hubei province over the death in police custody of a local legislator and anti-corruption campaigner. In late May a man with grievances against the government in Fuzhou, Jiangxi province, blew up himself and two others, prompting an outpouring of sympathy on the internet. Xu Chunliu, a self-proclaimed candidate in Beijing, who has 12,000-plus Sina Weibo followers, says such incidents have encouraged some to venture into politics. Better, he says, to battle it out in parliament than on the streets. On June 8th the government revealed its jitteriness about elections in an interview by the state-run news agency, Xinhua, with an unnamed official of the National People’s Congress, the apex of the legislative hierarchy. The official said independent candidates had “no legal basis” and hinted that campaigning in non-approved settings would not be tolerated. But the official did not rule out the possibility that independents could run. A harder-hitting commentary appeared in Global Times, a Beijing newspaper. By soliciting votes through the internet, it said, independent candidates “could destroy the operating rules of Chinese society”. It urged them to “return from microblogging to reality”. Mid-May elections for the people’s congress in Xinyu, a city in Jiangxi province, underlined the difficulties independents can face. Liu Ping (pictured above), a retired worker with more than 31,000 online followers, tried to run but was disqualified, apparently because of her labour activism. Her home was later raided by police, who detained her for several days. Ms Liu’s microblog postings about her experiences aroused sympathy among internet users and helped launch the recent wave of independent candidacies. The party is not united, though. On June 13th Study Times, a newspaper published by the Communist Party’s top academy for party officials, argued in defence of independent candidates. China, it said, had failed sufficiently to emphasise the right to get elected. The newspaper said the idea that “you can only be a representative if we let you be a representative” was a “serious violation of socialist democratic principles”. The party, it appears, has some internal differences of its own to resolve.

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