Published daily by the Lowy Institute

How art threatens to spoil China’s party

Xi Jinping has taken on mid-ranking cadres with twin attacks on 'work style' and humour.

Photo: Mitch Altman/Flickr
Photo: Mitch Altman/Flickr

This article is based on Episode 15 of the Little Red Podcast, featuring Sampson Wong, Badiucao and Louisa Lim

Many of my best friends in China are hated by all but their families – they are mid-ranking cadres in a rural county, assumed by their fellow citizens to be stupid, on the take, or both.

For the mandarins in Beijing, these cadres are both a useful target for public anger and an endless source of anxiety. Party research into the Soviet Union concludes the main reason for its fall was grassroots cadres not coming to its defense. As a result, my friends are bombarded with Party-mandated training to cultivate loyalty.

When I ask how they survive this siege under Xi Jinping's rule, the common response is 'mamu'. The word evokes a physical sensation - numbness – as well as a spiritual paralysis – apathy, insensitivity and hollowness.

The other common strategy is to mock their masters. Jokes about previous national leaders are endless and karaoke sessions see patriotic songs transformed into lewd imitations. It is hard to believe that China was ever so innocent that the words 'harder than iron, stronger than steel', the chorus of Unity is Strength, could be sung sans snigger.

The Party under Xi Jinping has taken on these mid-ranking cadres, the 'flies' of the anti-corruption campaign, with twin attacks on 'work style' and humour. Cadres are caught in a series of campaigns that leave no time for numbness. In rural Anhui, they're battling to eliminate poverty from China by 2020, the subject of an earlier podcast featuring Melbourne academics Sarah Rogers and Brooke Wilmsen. Their online remarks are closely monitored for signs of inappropriate wit. The guests on our latest episode - Sampson Wong, half of Hong Kong's Add Oil Team (along with Jason Lam) and the pseudonymous artist Badiucao - are on the front line of the Party's war on wit.

The Chinese Communist Party has never been fond of political art or humour, as David Moser's 2004 exploration of crosstalk, a traditional Chinese art of joke telling, demonstrates. After a tour of Chinese sketch humour, from raunchy bird jokes to mockery of empty political slogans, he found crosstalk, even in the relatively open atmosphere of 2004, was 'a sycophantic, unsatisfying and unfunny shadow of its former self.' He concluded:

If crosstalk is dying, it is not because of inexorable market forces, or because of some ineffable cultural difference. It is rather the fault of the Communist Party, whose paranoia and pathetic sense of dignity has produced a media environment in which nothing truly humorous can ever arise and flourish. It is the Party that killed the laughter. And this is truly no laughing matter.

For Wong and Badiucao, 'fighting the good fight' as artists takes place not in smoky theatres but in the once borderless realm of cyberspace, where they crowdsource and exhibit their artwork. There they face a Party even less fond of humour, particularly when it targets Xi Jinping. The party has banned references to everything from Winnie the Pooh to steamed buns, with one netizen sentenced to two years in prison for calling the president 'Steamed Bun Xi' (Xi Baozi 习包子) on the social media platforms WeChat and QQ.

The works of Beijing artist Zhao Bandi Scenery With Cameras, depicting surveillance cameras, and Night View, featuring a pink neon China Dream sign overlooking a drab cityscape, were simply barred from returning to China. Badiucao explains this predilection:

The government is really worried [about] people's imagination. The risk they don't want to take is that they think in the wrong way. So just censor the whole thing. This is the logic of the government dealing with any issues around this country; it's not just in the art world. In the city traffic system, they find the motorcycle is hard to control, so they just wipe it away completely.

Since we recorded the episode, booing the national anthem was also banned. This inspired Hong Kong football fans to boo even louder.  Sampson Wong found himself at the heart of Hong Kong's highest profile example of art censorship over the Countdown Machine, a light installation projected onto Hong Kong's largest building, the International Commerce Centre. In 'Our 60 Second Friendship Begins Now' the final one-minute countdown shows the number of days until 2047, when the guarantee of 'One Country, Two Systems' expires. Wong puts it down to self-censorship, with organisers worried about offending sponsors or the venue partner:

It always comes from an excuse about future opportunities. This argument is still convincing to the general public, because they think a lot of things are business, or a lot of things have hidden rules, so we have to follow the hidden rules. That's how censorship could be easily operated in Hong Kong.

Both artists produced works to mark the death of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo. Wong was inspired to crowdsource and recreate Liu Xiaobo's final speech to court with voices and images from 50 Hong Kongers. Wong created Marathon Reading for Liu Xiaobo because he realised that while most of his friends knew the phrase 'I have no enemies', few had read the whole speech. He was also struck by the notion that Liu never read all of his most famous work, as the judge ruled it could not exceed the length of his closing address.  

Wong has no way of knowing whether his work has spread beyond Hong Kong, but Badiucao's simple image of Liu Xiaobo leaving this world and his wife Liu Xia for the last time (available as a printable poster) spread from Hosier Lane in Melbourne to the world's major capitals, including Beijing. For Badiucao, simplicity is crucial:

Every image, I am thinking how can it survive inside the Great Firewall? Sometimes the most simple image is more effective. An image which is really simple, you don't even need face or body features. With this work people can pass it round, print it out, mimic the drawing by themselves. That way it goes around the censorship system.

Both artists draw inspiration from Liu Xiaobo's insistence on eschewing enemies and hatred, which 'can rot away at a person's intelligence and conscience'. Wong admits he finds it hard to move beyond anger and isn't sure it's the most useful approach to an authoritarian regime; it's 'almost like reading some Buddhist philosophy, it's so remote'. Badiucao sees it as practical: 'When you have a regime which is so violent, showing off its power by detaining or killing off its intellectuals or dissidents, they are actually very weak indeed. How [can] you be different from them? You're saying, we're choosing a different way. We're not trying to eliminate you, as you would do to us. I am saying I have no enemy. It's a powerful gesture. You're saying I don't take your power seriously, so you're not even capable of being my enemy.'

Whether art or numbness poses the greatest threat to a party bent on controlling everything is unclear. But with propaganda becoming more strident and censorship more pervasive, it's a good bet that both are already on the march inside China.

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