china powerhouse

April 10, 2008

100 Chinese by Zhang Dali

It was hard enough to avoid China’s sphere of influence even before the kick-off of the Olympic torch relay, and the farce it has become. This both economically with so many products being manufactured there and culturally, with every museum who can hosting its own China exhibition. I’ve been sucked into the buzz myself.

Now the rumblings of protest about China’s poor human rights record have become louder. Jonathon Jones argues in today’s Guardian that such a response is hypocritical in light of how China (and its government) is being courted by many British museums art galleries. I feel the same way but in an economic sense, in our desire for cheap (Chinese manufactured) goods. We seem to pick all of the gain, but leave the distaste of moral outrage for others to deal with.

It’s time to question our cultural rage for China

Isn’t it a bit rich that China, with its human rights record, is being so assiduously courted by so many British museums and galleries?

Jonathon Jones, The Guardian, April 10, 2008

It was meant to be the grand climax to a triumph of cultural diplomacy. The last day of the British Museum’s superb exhibition The First Emperor, made possible by unprecedented loans from China, coincided with the Olympic torch procession through London. The route of the torch went right past the museum, in what was presumably a calculated choice to show off Britain’s cultural relationship with China. From the First Emperor to the Beijing Olympics … let’s celebrate two thousand years of authoritarian government!

I don’t actually think the history of China is exclusively authoritarian – on the contrary – but my one quibble with the British Museum’s Terracotta Army show was that it almost seemed to want to say just that, in some overly sophisticated and disturbingly relativist claim to “understand” the fact that China today is a rapidly developing economy presided over by a brutal, undemocratic regime.

Anyway, as you know, Sunday April 6 didn’t turn out as planned for the British Museum or anywhere else. Far from a lap of honour for the museum’s blockbuster show, the sale of day tickets had to be cancelled because of security fears. And all the British cultural institutions that have been falling over backwards to honour China have been left looking slightly silly.

No one is going to complain about the Terracotta Warriors coming here – and I don’t think anyone actually absorbed the rather strange ideas about China’s political identity that were attached to it. But isn’t it a bit rich that a regime once more revealed, by the outrages in Tibet, as what it has never actually denied being – an authoritarian mono-cultural state – is being so assiduously courted by so many museums and galleries? The British Museum is lucky that its show has just closed – what if it was opening this week? Spare a thought for the V&A, whose big spring exhibition China Design Now (media sponsor: er, The Guardian…) opened recently and runs until mid July. Bad timing.

This strange story began with an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at the ICA a few years ago that coincided with disgraceful scenes of human rights protestors being prevented from upsetting a Chinese state visit. The ICA’s then director Philip Dodds was in the vanguard of the Sinophilia that has since seized every museum with the least excuse to connect its collections with China. Meanwhile, the hotness of contemporary Chinese art has got ever hotter, with a major series of exhibitions organised by the Serpentine. And all of this has behind it a curiously sophistical view of contemporary China.

To be honest, I’ve never understood this fashionable view at all. As far as I can make sense of what someone like the British Museum’s Neil MacGregor might think about the Chinese state, it must be that although Mao’s heirs have made no move towards democratic reform since the massacre of protestors on Tiananmen Square in 1989, this somehow doesn’t matter because … er, this is where I get confused. It’s not like we would forgive any other modern state for a massacre of anything from 400 to 2,000 pro-democracy protestors (there is, of course, no official figure). The correct liberal-elite position is apparently that China’s fantastically growing economy will ultimately make democracy inevitable: free markets bring free governments. This is pure Adam Smith – more Thatcherite than Thatcher – and it’s a dogma that modern China is testing to breaking point.

Or is it just that we naturally admire and bow down before the most powerful bully on the playground? Is the cult of China nothing more than a desperate courtship of the economy predicted to be this century’s most powerful?

I can’t see much difference between the cultural rage for China now and the left’s willed blindness to Stalin’s crimes in the 1930s. The analogy is closer than it looks: the real reason people were so ready to fool themselves about Stalin was that Russia’s planned economy seemed stronger than those of capitalist democracies hit by the Depression. Russia in 1935 looked like the face of the future, as China does now.

That turned out to be illusion. Perhaps China’s modernity is equally fragile, or perhaps it is a society that faces years of conflict – or perhaps it really is going to be both rich and undemocratic. If so we need to be more honest with ourselves. Do human rights matter? If they do, we should be less ready to cement cultural ties with unpleasant regimes. Personally I think it’s time for a big exhibition in London of the great art traditions of Buddhism, a culture that has suffered so much in recent years, from the destruction of one of its greatest monuments in Afghanistan to the ordeal of Tibet at this moment. The V&A and British Museum, both with fine eastern collections, could collaborate to celebrate the world’s most oppressed religion. Or are we only interested in winners?


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