Tuesday, 28 August 2012

An Alternative Exploration of China

In my last posting I discussed how the BBC is inadvertently helping China accumulate and exercise soft power. Its television programme, Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure finished its run on Sunday 26 August with visits to Guangzhou and Taiwan. I noted the programme's apolitical content and the way the crew had apparently been able to film without any official hindrance.

Last night I watched Never Say Sorry, a stunning documentary film about the Chinese artist Ai Wewei. The contrast with Exploring China could not be more obvious, and anyone seeking a more rounded perspective of life in new China should see this film. Ai Weiwei's bravery is inspiring, and the brutality of the Chinese system is quite frightening. Two issues concerning communications emerge from this film:

First, the documentary undermines the soft power advantage that China may have accumulated in other areas. It documents the lack of transparency, especially around the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, and the Big Brother tactics that the police use in following, monitoring and beating Ai and his friends (the most vivid scenes in the film are those of the cameraman filming the policeman filming the cameraman). There is nothing unexpected here, and all of us who follow Chinese politics are fully aware of the problems of living under an authoritarian state. Hence there is a startling inconsistency between how China wishes to project itself and the reality of life there. This credibility gap is a serious problem for the Chinese authorities, and no amount of public diplomacy activities, international broadcasting or Confucius Institutes is going to change that. If China wonders why the international community is so critical of it, the Chinese authorities need to look at their behavour towards their own people first. This film will damage the credibility of China's official soft power work.

However, the most compelling theme to emerge from this film is the strength of an autonomous sphere within artistic circles and even within civil society. Contrary to popular portraits of the Chinese people as passive recipients of centrally directed information and instructions, Never Say Sorry is a remarkable testimony to the growing soft power of a civil society that is challenging the state in more open and innovative ways than at any time in the past. In 2005, Michel Hockx and Julia Strauss edited a volume of essays called Culture in the Contemporary PRC (Cambridge University Press). These brilliant essays made uncomfortable reading as they discussed the lack of creativity in many areas of China's cultural landscape. I am delighted that the perspective offered in this book are now out of date, and Never Say Sorry demonstrates not just the level of artistic creativity thriving in modern China, but also the inventive methods used to challenge the Chinese state. Ai Weiwei is an obsessive tweeter, photographing everyone and everything around him as a permanent record of his experiences. His role in mobilising civil society to support the causes he cares about is not only dramatic proof of the power of modern social media in China, but also the determination of Chinese people - his followers - to stand up and be counted, often at great personal risk. This is Chinese soft power, but it is the soft power of civil society, not the state or the nation, and the film addresses issues that will resonate with and appeal to audiences.

I always impress upon my students, especially those who are not Chinese and therefore may not be aware of the intensity of public debate in social media such as Weibo, that they should analyse the creativity of young Chinese in highlighting and commenting on political issues. Here I include some examples that take as their starting point an obviously photo-shopped picture of three local officials inspecting a road.

In the meantime, if you have enjoyed Exploring China as much as I have, try to watch Never Say Sorry and explore an alternative view of the modern PRC. It might make for more uncomfortable viewing than the Culinary Adventure, but it may be equally inspiring. 

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