In China, Politics as Usual

5 Apr

There were two very telling news stories that came out of China this week.  The first, the opening of the new National Museum of China, seemed like standard party propaganda, but the second, the detainment of artist Ai Weiwei, goes a step further by illustrating how controlling the regime actually is.  The New York Times articles can be found here and here.

Every nation whitewashes its history in its museums to some extent.  American museums are notorious for omitting key facts about the treatment of Native Americans, and nowhere in the British Museum do they explain how they managed to get so many treasures from around the world.  In the case of the National Museum of China, however, completely ignoring the Great Leap Forward, during which approximately 20 million people died of starvation, is inexcusable.

But to me that’s not even the worst part.  We expect that from China.  What really upsets me is the first major exhibition they’re doing, which is all about the art of the Enlightenment.  How the museum thought that the art of a period known for encouraging human rights and democracy would be a good fit in China I don’t know.  They somehow seem to avoid it by focusing on the Enlightenment in Germany, where it didn’t have quite the far-reaching effects as it did in France or the United States.

The exhibition focuses on the Enlightenment through the reign of Frederick II of Prussia, who was a major proponent of enlightened monarchy.  That’s all well and good, but to focus on an individual who believed that the main lesson of the Enlightenment is that the best system of governance is a strong central government that knows what’s best for the people is dangerous in a one party state such as China.

Then there’s the German museums who lent artworks for the exhibition and consulted with the Chinese.  They claim that it’s a show about art and not politics.  It’s China.  It’s all about politics.  It’s one thing for them to portray their own national history as they wish, but assisting them in rewriting European history strikes me as incredibly irresponsible.  Museums have control over which works they loan out, to whom, and how those works are presented.  There is no reason they should be giving a totalitarian regime free rein to depict one of the defining ages of Western democracy any way they wish.  Maybe they thought that simply mentioning the Enlightenment in China would make people curious to read more about its ideas, but realistically that’s probably not going to happen.  The Chinese government has too much control over the information available to its people.

Which brings me to the second news story, the detainment of Ai Weiwei.  As I write this the latest information available is that no one has been able to contact him since Sunday (April 3) and ambassadors from the EU and US are urging China to release him.  It’s a sad reminder that art can be for an even greater purpose – that of promoting democracy and human rights.  Many in the art world try to avoid politics because they don’t want to offend or simply don’t feel its their place.  I only hope they don’t stay silent in this instance.

Last year there was an exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s art here in Munich.  The front facade of the building where it was held was covered in backpacks, part of the artist’s criticism of the government for its lax building codes that resulted in the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.  This has been one of Ai Weiwei’s personal causes and part of what made him so threatening to the Chinese government.  In the new National Museum of China is a megaphone that President Hu Jintao used to motivate rescue workers and citizens after the same earthquake.  One is a hero, the other a threat to society, and as long as the Chinese can write their own history as they wish no one can say for sure which is which.



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