Circles and Circles: An Artistic Look at China’s Nation Building
BY RUI ZHUO
China’s technocratic growth has inspired fascination around the world for decades now. As the dust settled on 1989 Beijing, social change and national development in China became displaced from the politics of New Democracy to a genericized and technocratic logic of development for its own ends. From 1990-2010, China’s top leadership abandoned politicized language and direct reference to the revolutionary politics from which the party emerged; as long as the economic tide manifestly appeared to be rising, the citizens seemed to be willing to do so as well. In Tiananmen Square, students had made effigies of “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy;” China’s 90s saw one — in the form of the artists, poets, and intellectuals, emigrating or abandoning their work — even as planners, scientists, and those who understood development in practical and material terms saw their careers rise meteorically. Development of the country assumed the form of an infrastructural and quantifiable sublime, an economic growth so sustained and intense that it felt like a dream.
These were the years when new cities sprang up overnight, when The New York Times regularly featured op-eds wondering why China could build railroads and airports, sustain GDP growth so effectively, and have leaders like Jiang Zemin (’47, BA Electrical Engineering), Hu Jintao (’65, BA Water Conservancy Engineering) and Wen Jiabao (’65, BA Geomechanics). These years which seemed to inspire so much envy in Thomas Friedman and Mario Draghi were also the years in which China’s GINI coefficient spiraled out of control; environmental destruction both of natural ecosystems and of traditional urban neighborhoods and villages; mass unemployment as the result of privatization and the accumulation of fortunes overnight by the well-placed; and the re-emergence of organized crime came back on the scene. It’s easy to remember when that epoch ended — in 2008 in Shanghai, mayor Chen Liangyu was sentenced to prison on charges of corruption (temporarily replaced by an official on the rise named Xi Jinping); in 2008 in Beijing, during the preparations for the Olympics; in 2010 in Shanghai, just before the Expo, when all the red-light districts were razed; in 2011 near Wenzhou, when a high-speed train went off the rails, leading to the discovery that Liu Zhijun, the technocratic bureaucrat who had masterminded China’s high-speed rail, was extraordinarily corrupt; and in 2012, when Xi Jinping assumed the mantle of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China.
To construct the nation was simultaneously a question of ethics, morality and social values; and also one of economic materiality.
What was once accepted as a universally positive development is now being scrutinized rigorously. On a basic level, the anti-corruption campaign led by Xi Jinping amounts to a humanistic critique of technocracy, and the return of openly politicized discourse, one comfortable with embracing ideas from China’s radical past and contemporary New Left as well as from more Confucian sources. What is clear is that the discourse of development and technocracy, within the national borders at least, is decidedly on the wane. A truly vast number of the sort of small local officials who saw their districts’ GDP go up have been arrested, as it has been discovered that the GDP figures had been inflated by the violent appropriation of land and construction of Potemkinesque “new towns.” State-owned enterprises which once served as appealing vehicles for money laundering are being investigated; officials who had sent their families overseas have been reprimanded; and “international research trips” which were often excuses for government officials to go on lavish trips at state account have been stopped in their tracks. Even as Chinese civil society has started to reassess the value of development at any cost, in the form of legal activism, environmental activism, radical nationalism, and a renewed language of class war, the art world has started to take note.
From October 29, 2016 to January 21, 2017 in Shanghai, META Project Space hosted a project researched by Pan Lu, a professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic, Wang Bo, artist and instructor at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and Zhou Xin, an independent curator, all who have in one way or another emerged from the China that came into being in 1990. Bo, a native of Chongqing, had his first significant project with “China Concerto,” a film exploring the radical politics of Bo Xilai-era Chongqing; Lu, a Shanghainese, researches cultural histories from China’s 1970s; and Zhou’s work often focuses on Chinese politics and notions of representation. Their research has taken the form of a large archive of images from Chinese media of the 1950s-1970s period, of glorious workers and infrastructures, from publications such as “China Pictorial” and others. Their curatorial statement, worth reading at length, declares:
Discussion of infrastructure can obviously refer to the dialectical relations between base and superstructure in Marxist philosophy, and certainly tons of official images produced in the early stage of the PRC were heavily influenced by this particular ideology. Images of shadows with large industrial structures in the background, along with those of laboring bodies and their gaze towards the future, have repeatedly appeared in RENMIN HUABAO, a state-published pictorial for mostly foreign reference. It reveals something that is the opposite of what is commonly known as instrumental rationality, that is, how infrastructure produces, rather than reduces the 魅惑, or “the enchantment.
Indeed, what is notable about the ways that infrastructure construction was visualized in the first revolutionary era was perhaps the degree to which science and “new democracy” were not alienated from each other in the way that they seem to be. To construct the nation was simultaneously a question of ethics, morality and social values; and also one of economic materiality. The workers pictured building these infrastructures are invariably smiling; that is perhaps because the economic value that they create has a moral correspondence. In building the bridges, roads and farms of the New China, they were simultaneously cultivating themselves … or that’s what the images in “Renmin Huabao” would suggest.
Many of these contradictions have been externalized today; the big Chinese property investors, construction firms, and banks, are still making headlines, but nowadays these are more likely about their railways in Indonesia, their factories in Ethiopia, or their soybean farms in Brazil, than anything closer to home. At the same time, in discussion at Meta, Zhou Xin suggested that the form of cultivation that is necessary today in China isn’t solely quantitative but qualitative. On the newly built roads, we can go faster than ever before. But who are we, and where are we going? In today’s China, infrastructure can no longer be taken for granted; the politicians, intellectuals, and artists have come back.