Chinese artists test censorship’s new red line

After two-and-a-half years of China’s zero-Covid policy, Hu Mendong had had enough. The ever-increasing lengths to which his city was going to keep Covid-19 at bay — such as compulsory throat swabs every three days — felt suffocating. One night in August, he wrote what he believed most people thought, pasting Chinese characters on eight different testing booths dotted around his neighbourhood. When put together they read: “I’ve already been numb for three years.”

The government’s rationale for the measures had been protection — “people first, life first” — but Hu didn’t feel like he was truly living. “It made me feel like an animal being domesticated,” says the 30-year-old artist (who preferred to use a pseudonym). His was a lonely voice that would be echoed three months later during the so-called “white paper protests”, in which Chinese people took to the streets holding blank sheets of A4 to demonstrate against the zero-Covid policy.

Back in August, Hu hadn’t thought he would get into much trouble — at most a fine or a fortnight’s detention — and even posted his mischievous act to friends on WeChat, China’s messaging app. He reckons someone powerful must have noticed when pictures of his graffiti were picked up by prominent public figures and went viral, garnering international attention. Police came to Hu’s house shortly afterwards and arrested him for picking quarrels and provoking trouble, common shorthand for political disruption. No one told him how long he would be in prison.

Hu had crossed one of the state’s red lines at a sensitive time, with disquiet at the zero-Covid policy rising and officials on the lookout for subversive acts in the run-up to October’s 20th party congress. In a country where artists and gallerists have long found ways to work around censorship’s grey areas, work that might have been just about tolerated pre-pandemic was now being quashed — along with one of art’s most important civic functions.

“Art should be a tool to change society and make it better,” says the artist Jian An’er (who also requested a pseudonym). “​​The responsibility for the artist is to feel the pain of society and to find the real issue.” But now, he says, “there’s no space for this at all.”

Mao Zedong saw artists as the rank and file of his “cultural army”, and for Xi Jinping they play a similar role. “Literature and art are the bugle call for the progress of the times,” the Chinese president told a forum of artists and writers in 2014, adding that art was at its finest when it was “serving the people and serving socialism”, and should be heartwarming, “like sunshine from a blue sky or a cool spring breeze”.

For work lacking on the sunny and breezy side, consequences range from being “invited to tea” (interrogation at the local police station) to life imprisonment. Janet Marstine, a former professor of museum studies at Leicester University and an expert on censorship in museum spaces, notes that such pressure “doesn’t mean you shut down”, citing a plethora of methods she has encountered Chinese artists using to play the current system.

Take Nut Brother, an artist mainly known for staging work across China to raise public awareness of environmental pollution. In February he tried to put on an exhibition, titled No Entry, in Chengdu — a city with a reputation for being relatively relaxed about art. The gallery showed portraits drawn, painted or doodled by netizens who had been urged or forced to marry by their parents, based on their parents’ descriptions of ideal partners. Nut Brother, writing on his WeChat account, claimed the exhibition was shut down before opening by local police, citing its attitude to feminism. Undaunted, he and curators staged the show as a pop-up in a local park, choosing a spot well-known by locals as a place to meet blind dates.

Nut Brother’s ‘No Entry’ exhibition was shown on a rooftop and in a friend’s apartment during the Beijing leg © Nut Brother

Deng Yufeng, a performance artist whose work draws attention to data privacy issues and surveillance, filled an entire Wuhan gallery space in 2018 with the private data of its citizens, which he had found and bought online illegally. He took his work outside in 2020, creating a convoluted obstacle course on a Beijing street for members of the public, which illustrated how hard it is to avoid the gaze of the city’s CCTV cameras. For Deng, art has a social value; it is “a window that allows us to see the truth” of the world we live in. He has been arrested and had exhibitions closed early, but still believes it is important to create art that pushes at the boundaries.

Even so, it’s never clear where these boundaries are. “None of the rules are ever clearly spelled out,” explains Marstine. There are a few obvious things for artists to steer clear of — the so-called “three Ts” (Tibet, Tiananmen, Taiwan), the Hong Kong protests, feminism, LGBTQ issues — but beyond that, all they have to go on is anecdotes of what has and hasn’t worked.

A WeChat account called BAFA Art Gallery collated anecdotes from students in several Chinese Art Academies and came up with a general template for what does and doesn’t pass to be shown in graduate exhibitions: avoid nudity, horror, titles in English and depicting foreigners. But it urges students to be aware that even if you use good socialist ideology, “the work may be banned due to the censor’s personal likes and dislikes and misinterpretation”. It advised that the work most likely to pass was Realist painting with no political ideology and no “real-world significance”.

Teachers are also less willing to discuss risky subjects with their students in art academies. Neng Muruo, a freelance curator and former assistant professor at an elite Beijing university, commenting under a pseudonym, cites several examples during the past few years of professors “invited to tea” or demoted for including political topics in their art classes.

Yet pushing boundaries remains a temptation for many artists, and the medium has traditionally been safer for this than other art forms: unlike the written word, “visual language can be interpreted in multiple ways”, says Neng.

The phrase Neng uses for such rule-pushing is ca bian qiu, outlined by Dr Marstine as originating from a move in ping-pong when you land a ball so close to the table’s edge that the other player can’t return it — you win. But it’s risky: do it wrong, and the ball misses the table completely — you lose. For some it just isn’t worth it, all the more so now the area for landing edgy shots appears to be getting smaller.

Jian An’er is considered to serve very close to the edge, exploring the roots of China’s social problems indirectly through work layered with references to historical events. For Jian, it’s a way of “enlightening” his audience while keeping himself safe.

He launched his latest project during Art Basel Hong Kong this month at a non-participating gallery in the city, a work he considers too dangerous to exhibit on the mainland as it examines contemporary artistic censorship.

By exhibiting in Hong Kong, he says he is “testing the water” to see what is still possible in the city after the passing of the national security law. But this work is closed to the public, at a private gallery that can only be entered by appointment — anything more “and I’d absolutely be in trouble”, says Jian. Although censorship is not yet at the same level as the mainland, the city is changing fast: Patrick Amadon’s “No Rioters” was removed from public display during the art fair for listing the names of imprisoned pro-democracy activists.

Today gallerists face not only the government, but an unpredictable cancel culture. In August 2022, the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing saw the closure of an entire exhibition — which already had censor approval — a week earlier than planned, over a public complaint about a painting by prominent artist Li Songsong depicting Japanese kamikaze pilots. The piece had exhibited in 2011 with no such problems.

A curator at a prominent Beijing gallery, who requested anonymity, said it is common for the public to protest about a show’s content, saying one part of the censor’s job has always been to pre-empt social disturbance. The curator noted that since the pandemic, controls in Beijing on art museums and galleries were “getting stricter”.

Jian has discussed at length with other artists how far they are willing to go with boundary pushing. The conclusion was that a period of around a month in jail was a punishment they could live with. But for him it makes no sense to be a “martyr” and risk more severe punishments — better to stay safe and in the game. “Artists should not fight against censorship, but fight against the system behind that censorship,” he says.

Some choose to leave China altogether, as Ai Weiwei did in 2015. But even that is no longer entirely safe. A report from Index on Censorship last year interviewed several Chinese and Hong Kong artists working abroad, discovering cases of pressure and intimidation from branches of China’s government on Chinese artists and foreign institutions to stop exhibiting work critical of Chinese domestic politics. 

People show blank papers as a way to protest
People in Shanghai last year show blank pages as a way to protest against China’s zero-Covid policy © Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

London-based Hong Kong artist Polam Chan notes that an exhibition he was part of in London last year, which gathered works from different Hong Kong artists, was featured by Wen Wei Po, a newspaper owned by the PRC’s Hong Kong Liaison Office. The article mentioned each artist by name, accusing them of campaigning for Hong Kong independence. Hong Kong’s new national security law claims jurisdiction over “organisation and perpetration of terrorist activities” by any “person who is not a permanent resident”.

For Jian, the only true way to create freely is to go underground — citing an art collective based in Guangzhou he is inspired by (but preferred not to name), which finds safety through collective responsibility and not assigning pieces to any one individual. But this inevitably means fewer people end up seeing the participating artists’ work.

Neng agrees that it is still possible for artists to create underground, provided they don’t show in public or on social media. In public, he says, more and more artists are trying to “lie flat”, removing explorations of social issues from their canvases.

But an artist’s creative urge is a strange thing. It isn’t always logical, controllable or suggestive of blue skies and spring breezes. As long as this urge exists, Chinese artists who criticise and explore social issues will exist too, in some form or other. “This is just a human instinct, I think,” says Jian.

Restrictions in China ebb and flow with the political tide. It remains to be seen if they will relax a little now that zero-Covid has been abolished, Xi finally inaugurated for his third term — or if this is yet another permanent turn of the screw.

To his surprise, Hu was released from prison after 108 days — once officials had begun rolling back zero-Covid, rendering his cause obsolete. He doesn’t know what caused this release, or if he would do this sort of work again: his feeling in the moment trumped what was or wasn’t rational. “I felt that I needed to get the words out, so I just blurted it out without thinking too much.”

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