Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Protest march! In China??

Over the past year, a bunch of Chinese modern artists have set up studios in a village out on the eastern fringes of Beijing. They'd been encouraged to go there by the local government in order to establish a new artists' community (there have been several of these over the last 20 years in Beijing, and they seldom survive very long), and given relatively long (20- or 30-year) and seemingly secure (ha, ha!) leases. But now a property developer has come along with a get-rich-quick scheme and bought the local government out. The artists are being turfed out, with very little notice or compensation - and after many of them have spent several months' hard work and substantial amounts of money in converting the rented houses into working studios.

As is typical in these cases, the developer quickly resorted to strong-arm tactics: first, cutting off the utilities; then, last weekend, sending in a huge mob of hired thugs to threaten and beat tenants.

A day or two later, Monday 22nd February, ten or so of the outraged artists took to the streets to protest against this treatment.

And not any old streets, not just in the rustic Changdian neighbourhood near their studios. Oh no. They marched on Chang'an Dajie, the main east-west thoroughfare through the heart of Beijing, the road that runs directly in front of Tiananmen Square and - even more significantly - Zhongnanhai, the walled parkland complex where most of the senior members of the government have their residences.

I gather they didn't get very far, only a few hundred yards, before police intervened to block their path and then - after just a little bit of argey-bargey - to disperse them. Still, they disrupted traffic for the best part of an hour on one of the capital's most important streets, and got surprisingly close to the seat of power at Zhongnanhai. A marching demonstration - with banners and chanting - is pretty damn rare anywhere in China; on Chang'an, it is unheard of (well, not since 1989, that is).

Way to go, boys!!

Of course, this story has by now been covered by much of the foreign media here - for example, by the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian. What's more surprising is that the incident has apparently also received some coverage even in the domestic media (well, at least in the English-language newspapers, China Daily and Global Times; I doubt if it was given much, if any, attention in the Chinese-language news media).

According to Xinhua last Friday, the police are investigating the complaints, and 18 of the alleged hired thugs have already been arrested. I imagine that's the last that will be heard of the story. There's no word yet of any charges actually being brought, and - since these guys were apparently recruited from the Beijing underworld, and even the government is scared to mess with those mean motherf***ers - I think it's rather unlikely that they'll suffer much more than a slap on the wrist. Of course, CCP cadres - at least at the Chaoyang District level - are deeply complicit in the whole affair, and might well have hired the goons themselves; so, that's another reason why it will all get briskly swept under the carpet.

This kind of thing goes on depressingly frequently. The only reason this protest achieved any media recognition (and the only reason why the perpetrators have - thus far - escaped any retribution from the authorities) is that the modern art scene in China has achieved a very high international profile over the past decade or so, and thus artists are a kind of privileged class, automatically enjoying better access to the foreign press corps, and gaining some protection from police harassment by virtue of that. But run-of-the-mill, non-famous artists like most of these guys would not usually be able to pull off a stunt like this and get away with it. No, the thing that probably saved them all from arrest on this occasion was the support of Ai WeiWei - China's most internationally-famous artist (particularly since his involvement as a consultant on the design of the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium) and thus now, despite his frequent outspoken criticisms of the government here, pretty much untouchable. I gather he was only rooting from the sidelines, taking photographs and tweeting about the demonstration rather than marching himself - but that was enough to ensure that the group could assemble and begin to march in such a sensitive area, and that they could disperse when it was over without getting beaten up or thrown in prison.

Just remember, the next time you read one of these stories about artists getting evicted from their homes or studios - it's the tip of an iceberg: untold thousands, probably many tens of thousands of people are being driven out of their homes, often violently, every year, all across China, to make way for new property developments. Their stories are seldom or never heard, either in China or around the world.

Update - Friday 5th March: I have just learned that three of the 'ringleaders' of the artists' protest were taken into custody for questioning about the incident on Wednesday. They were detained for about 24 hours, but don't seem to have suffered any ill-treatment. I hope there won't be any further repercussions for them, but.... well, it seems likely they'll be on a 'watch list' now; and if any of 'the leaders' felt particularly offended or shamed by their effrontery in seeking to march on Zhongnanhai, then they could find themselves subject to all kinds of petty harassment in retribution - parking tickets, nuisance phone calls, constant ID checks. I know some of their families and friends are very anxious about what the fall-out from this might be. Let's keep our fingers crossed that it will soon blow over.

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