In China: Citizenship on Trial

This article was originally published in a shortened version on 7 February 2014 at Waging Nonviolence. Available here.

Last week China observed the lunar New Year. The Spring Festival is celebrated with two weeks of fireworks and food, when hundreds of millions of Chinese travel home to be with their families, but this year a group of activists will be conspicuously missed as their families ring in the year of the horse. The Chinese Communist Party scheduled the majority of trials for some 20 activists related to the New Citizens Movement for the week preceding the Chinese New Year with the expectation that the overlap would diminish public awareness of the trials.

When Xi Jinping became the new president of China in March 2013 there was a general feeling, although perhaps naïve, that he would be more politically liberal than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Even before assuming full position, in early 2013, Xi Jinping was inspiring hope for reform by calling for a comprehensive crackdown on graft. Corruption, mainly related to illegal demolitions and evictions, health and labor exploitation, is a serious issue in China. It is at the source, in one form or another, of the majority of demonstrations, online campaigns, legal challenges, and millions of petitions filed every year. However, the jubilation over his declared war on corruption soon receded with the parallel crackdown on civil society activists, many whose principal grievance ironically was corruption.

The year before, Xu Zhiyong, a well-known human rights defender, had published an article calling for enhanced civil society participation and this impetus soon became the spirit and master frame of civil society activism and the government’s response. In certain respects, Xi Jinping’s repressive policies against civil society participation in the first year of his administration as much created the New Citizens Movement as a unified movement as the activists who have been or are awaiting trial for their involvement. Who are some of these individuals? What are their grievances and how have they mobilized?

The Jiangxi Three and Other New Citizens

On April 21, 2013 Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping, and Li Sihua, along with nine others staged a demonstration in Xinyu, Jiangxi Province. They posted photos online of themselves holding posters in solidarity with several recently detained activists. A week later they were detained. While most of the demonstrators were subsequently released, the three organizers were arrested on charges of ‘gathering a crowd to disturb public order.’  On December 3rd, 2013 the Jiangxi Three would become the first group formally tried in relation to the New Citizens Movement. But these three were far from new to civil resistance and their singling out is as much related to their previous activism as their association with the nascent movement.

Liu Ping had been forced from her job at a steel plant back in 2009, around which time she began petitioning for worker’s rights. In 2011 she decided to run as an independent candidate in a local election. Two days before the vote she was arbitrarily detained by police. Professor Yu Jianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences posted an online appeal, which was reposted nearly 70,000 times. Liu Ping was released but still barred from running in the election. Wei Zhongping, like Liu Ping, began his activism on worker’s rights and has also campaigned for housing and land rights. He too ran as an independent candidate in 2011, and 2006. Li Sihua had on numerous occasions campaigned for China to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and was also an independent candidate in 2011. Following their failed electoral bids, the three activists were subjected to relentless persecution but their trial was far from isolated in the repressive political climate of 2013.

Liu Yuandong stood trial for his part in the New Citizens Movement in Guangdong province on January 24th, amid the flurry of summary trials preceding the Spring Festival. Liu Yuandong, at the helm of a loose network of activists in southern China, holds a PhD in biology. In February, he was detained for staging demonstrations against North Korean nuclear tests and two months later was arrested on charges of disturbing public order.

On March 31st, several Beijing activists unfurled banners and made anti-corruption speeches in the crowded Xidan shopping area. Among them were Li Wei and Ding Jiaxi, whose trials both begun on January 27th but were postponed until after the Spring Festival when they dismissed their lawyers. Several of the New Citizens Movement trials have been tactically postponed in order to extend public attention of the proceedings beyond the holiday. Ding Jiaxi is a rights lawyer and has been a champion for the rights of migrant worker children since 2010, while Li Wei is an unemployed petitioner. Veteran activist, Zhao Changqing was also part of the March demonstration.

A student protestor during the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement, Zhao has been imprisoned three times in his career of civil resistance, focusing on the right to education and anti-corruption. He has been active both in the streets and online. At the time of their detention in April 2013, rights defenders cautioned that the repression would engender further unrest. And it was only a few days later that the Jiangxi Three were protesting for their release. Countless others around the country would soon be equally emboldened to demand civil and political reform, inspired by an impassioned article written by Xu Zhiyong.

The Radicalism of Xu Zhiyong

Debonair in a pinstriped shirt with French cuffs, Xu Zhiyong posed for the cover of the Chinese version of Esquire, with a black leather bound legal pad and slightly cocked head he looked the part of the issues theme, Chinese Dream. His dream for China was a country that could be free and happy, where no citizen needed to go against her own conscience. That was in 2009, a year after he made headlines for himself by defending countless families affected by melamine poisoned milk powder but even as he was honored on the cover of Chinese Esquire he was under detention on spurious charges of tax evasion for his nonprofit Gongmeng (Open Constitution Initiative). He was released but the organization was shuttered on the tax evasion charges, which came suspiciously soon after Gongmeng sponsored research into the deadly March 2008 Lhasa riots. He continued his rights defense and lecturing at a university in Beijing.

Xu Zhiyong completed his doctorate of law from Beijing University, classmates and later partners with other high profile human rights defender Teng Biao. Liu Hua, whose husband had been a village chief until he tried to uncover local party corruption and was driven from their home to living in a tunnel in Beijing, recalls the day Xu Zhiyong found them in 2003. She recalls, “He used to come all the time, bringing us quilts that people had donated and he even slept there for three nights so he could experience what it was like.”

After graduating Xu Zhiyong and Teng Biao helped to organize a sophisticated campaign that utilized fledgling online tools in coordination with legal challenges and traditional collective action to abolish an abusive system of arbitrary detention known as Custody and Repatriation. A few years later Xu Zhiyong was at the forefront of campaigns against the even more arbitrary ‘black jail’ system. He also served as an independent candidate in his local Beijing district legislative body stating, “I have taken part in politics in pursuit of a better and more civilized nation.”

One of his clients remembers, “My impression of Mr Xu is that he is a moderate and prudent man. I have a hot temper, and once I yelled at him for a long time. But after I was finished, he simply asked me to calm down and said things would only be resolved when we were calm.” Xu Zhiyong is often depicted in media in this light, as the equanimous proponent of moderate reform. However, Eva Pils, law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher, argue that the China envisioned by Xu Zhiyong is in fact a very radical position in the one-party state. To think of him as a moderate does a great disservice to Xu Zhiyong and the “force of popular resistance he and others have successfully coordinated.” The only thing moderate about Xu Zhiyong, they write,  “is his unwavering advocacy of non-violence.” It is this radicalism and unwavering commitment to strategic nonviolence that encapsulates the New Citizens Movement.

A New Citizens Movement, What’s New?

The New Citizens Movement is an innovative, multi-issue campaign for systemic change, based on institutional and extra-institutional tactics, from launching legal actions, filing freedom of information requests, and staging demonstrations online and in the streets. In the article that called it into being in 2012, Xu Zhiyong writes that is political, championing the end of authoritarianism; social, seeking to destroy corruption, the abuse of power, and the gap between rich and poor, by building new foundations of justice; cultural, to cast off the culture of oppressor and oppressed; and progressive, in heralding a new civilized humanity. “The goal of the New Citizens’ Movement is a free China ruled by democracy and law, a just and happy civil society with ‘freedom, righteousness, love’ as the new national spirit.” It is a spirit that must, “appear on the Internet, flourish in the streets, and, most of all, take root in the deepest part of our hearts.”

The New Citizens Movement is “the lawful defense of citizens’ rights, citizens’ non-violent non-cooperation, and peaceful democracy, all under a new system of ideas and discourse,” a discourse that is not ‘overthrow’ but ‘establish.’

At the core of the New Citizens Movement is the citizen, as an independent, individual, political, and social actor responsible only to the laws that have been commonly entered into. What is important is civil society participation through regular mealtime conversations, political discussions, attention to public life and policy, and community service. Xu Zhiyong’s call to action is,

“Repost messages, file lawsuits, photograph everyday injustices, wear t-shirts with slogans, witness everyday events [specifically referring to the phenomenon of standing in a circle around someone causing a scene to witness it], participate or openly refuse to participate in elections, transcribe [things that you see happen], hold gatherings or marches or demonstrations, do performance art, and use other methods in order to jointly promote citizens’ rights movements and citizens’ non-cooperation campaigns—such as assets reporting, openness of information, opposition to corruption, opposition to housing registration stratification, freedom of beliefs, freedom of speech, and the right of election. Practice the New Citizen Spirit in action. Citizens’ power grows in the citizens’ movement.”

Granted, the activists involved in the New Citizens Movement crackdown were not radicalized by Xu Zhiyong’s article; they were mostly veteran activists. But his moving words provided a master frame for dissent, which served to galvanize civil resistance and political repression. As the Chinese New Year celebrations culminating in the Lantern Festival on February 14th wind to an end, as the last fireworks sparkle and the mountains of red paper are swept away, Ding Jiaxi, Li Wei, and others will return to court for exercising their rights as citizens. As Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang observed, “the government is redrawing its red line about what is allowed, and clearly street action with a clear political theme is not allowed.” But, despite the arrests and the trials, no doubt New Citizens Movement inspired street action will continue in the Year of the Horse.

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Toothless Tigers in the Subway: An Animal Rights Campaign in China

Amid the usual frenetic pulsing throngs of passing subway patrons, Beijing denizens and tourists rushing from the sliding doors of subway cars to be the first ones up the escalator to make their connections or meetings, I examined my reflection in a glass partition waiting for the train to pass. After the train rushed away, I took notice of a conservationist advertisement across the tracks, a not too common sight in China I must say. Admittedly, I was so unaccustomed to conscientious or activist inspiring discourse in such politically sanctioned public space that it took me several trips before I actually took notice of the nature of this advertisement: A proscription against animal cruelty. The public service announcements were designed by IFAW, the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

IMG_5171The text reads, “Imagine an elephant without its teeth (ivory), a tiger without its bones, a bear without its gall bladder… A human without its humanity?”
The text in red reads, “To purchase (购买) = to slaughter (杀戮)”

IMG_5173Here the message is repeated. From left to right the Chinese characters for elephant, tiger, bear, and person are each written with a missing stroke; a splash of blood in its place. The sentence in green at the bottom reads,
“Purchasing is tantamount to slaughter, when it comes to products from wild animals just say “NO” !

IFAW lists fighting wildlife trafficking among its core activities. It explains on its website that it protects animals from illegal wildlife trade through: (1) Strengthening international agreements; (2) Training wildlife law enforcement officers; (3) Ending the illegal trade in tiger parts and elephant ivory; (4) Investigating Internet wildlife trafficking; (5) Educating consumers to reject products made from wildlife; (6) IFAW and INTERPOL, working together to fight wildlife crime. The illegal trade in tiger parts, elephant ivory, and bear bile is of particular concern in China, where certain folk remedies and traditional Chinese medicine nostrums still claim such products have curative properties.

In December of 2012 Malaysian authorities seized around 1,500 elephant tusks, between 20 and 24 tonnes, weighing the same as the previous year’s entire haul of illegally traded ivory, according to the Guardian. The two containers were seized by port authorities near Kuala Lumpur. The shipment had come from Togo, on the West coast of Africa, and was bound for China. The same Guardian article quotes Will Travers, the chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, a British based animal rights organization,

I thought that when the international ivory trade ban was agreed in 1989, we would see a permanent reversal of fortunes for this beleaguered species. How wrong I was – the respite was temporary. Experts estimate that between 20,000 and 30,000 elephants are being illegally killed each year to fuel demand, largely driven by China. No part of Africa is now safe. Across the continent, for the first time, the number of carcasses recorded as a result of poaching exceeds the number reportedly dying from natural causes.

Elephant Ivory is preeminent among the world’s sources of ivory, which includes walrus, rhinoceros, and narwhal. Elephant ivory is most prized for its unique texture and because it is softer it is more malleable. In a 2012 piece for The Atlantic Rebecca J. Rosen explains, quoting a New York Times article, “as much of 70 percent of the illegal ivory heads to China, where a pound can fetch as much as $1,000. “The demand for ivory has surged to the point that the tusks of a single adult elephant can be worth more than 10 times the average annual income in many African countries…” This rise in demand has emboldened poachers who are enchanted by the corresponding rise in price. With Ivory, unlike other animal products, the principle drive for the Chinese market may be more aesthetic than medicinal. The demand is responsible for a startling increase in global ivory trade and a corresponding destabilization of human security in the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other countries, where ivory is among diamonds and other precious material fueling conflict.

IFAW explains that part of the problem in China may be explained by linguistics. In Chinese ivory is expressed by 象牙, which most literally just means elephant tooth. In previous IFAW polls 70% of the 1067 Chinese people included in the survey did not know that ivory came from dead animals, being mislead by the linguistic implications that ivory, like human teeth, can fall out naturally or be removed without killing. This discovery led IFAW to initiate the ‘Mom I’ve got teeth’ campaign in 2010, says Grace Ge Gabriel, the Asia Regional Director. She explained, “The ads explain that ivory products come from dead elephants and encourage consumers to reject elephant ivory.” Since the campaign started running, IFAW is positive that the rate of ivory consumption in China has decreased. IFAW explains that 88% of those who have seen the campaign have fully processed its message and that within the demographics most likely to purchase ivory there has been a rate decrease from 54% to 26%. Elephants are not the only animals targeted for protection by the IFAW campaign.

Tigers in Crisis, an NGO focused on the protection of tigers and their habitats in China and Russia, notes that for over a thousand years Chinese folk medicine has included tiger parts. The continued belief in the curative properties of tigers is placing the threatened species at considerably increased risk. It is estimated that there are only 3,500 tigers still living in the wild. From their elevated position in mythology and legend tigers are believed to have extraordinary power and when certain parts of the tiger are consumed by humans that power is transferred. Tigers in Crisis explains that all parts of the tiger from bones, eyes, whiskers and teeth are used to treat ailments from malaria to bad skin. Many superstitions have been inscribed in tomes of folk remedies explaining that the “active ingredients in tiger bone; calcium and protein, which help promote healing, have anti-inflammatory properties.” According to the article, the following parts of the tiger are believed to have certain corresponding medicinal properties:

Tiger claws: used as a sedative for insomnia
Teeth: used to treat fever
Fat: used to treat leprosy and rheumatism
Nose leather: used to treat superficial wounds such as bites
Tiger bone: used as an anti-inflammatory drug to treat rheumatism and arthritis, general weakness, headaches, stiffness or paralysis in lower back and legs and dysentery
Eyeballs: used to treat epilepsy and malaria
Tail: used to treat skin diseases
Bile: used to treat convulsions in children associated with meningitis
Whiskers: used to treat toothaches
Brain: used to treat laziness and pimples
Penis: used in love potions such as tiger soup, as an aphrodisiac
Dung or feces: used to treat boils, hemorrhoids and cure alcoholism

Dried tiger bones are often boiled or soaked in alcohol to produce tonics and medicinal wines. Medicinal wines are popular in China, as is home made alcohols that often include cobras or scorpions but legally none of the commercially sold products are allowed to include the animal products of endangered species. That is, however, until recently.

A Chinese company has managed to circumvent stringent laws against the international trafficking of endangered species and their animal products, reports a watchdog organization. The spirits company has managed to sell its wine domestically for between 616 and 4740 RMB (about 100 to 767.40 USD) per bottle. The price depends on how long the tiger bones were soaked in the alcohol. The government has somehow decreed that because the tigers used in the production of the ‘tonic’ wines are both domestic and captive-bred international proscriptions do not apply. Although there are only about 3,500 tigers alive in the wild, China boasts almost 5,000 tigers in captivity, the largest number in the world. Although this tiger bone tonic wine does not seem to be widely available, the fact that it is sanctioned by the government at all is quite alarming. It is alarming that the government would condone such treatment of a captive-bred endangered species and further alarming that it condones this treatment for multiple endangered species.

“Some Westerners say this is cruel – but I think the bears are making a contribution to mankind,” says a grinning bear bile farmer to a BBC reporter. Like tiger bones and elephant ivory or other animal products, bear parts, particularly bile and dried gall bladders, have been used for hundreds of years in Chinese folk medicine. While bear bile was traditionally collected from wild bears, rapid urbanization and population increase in the 1970s and 1980s has driven the industry to establishing larger and larger complexes for captive-bred collection.

The process is excruciating for the captive bears. The animals are kept in severely restrictive cages that allow for easy access to their abdomen but completely restrict their ability to stand up or even move at all sometimes. Some bears have been kept in such confinement for upwards of 10 years, being milked for their bile twice a day. This confined state naturally causes severe psychological trauma and physical deformation. The extraction of bile usually happens twice a day and takes place through a tube that has been implanted in the bear’s abdomen. Since the holes never close, in addition to the already excruciating pain of extraction, infections and diseases are common.

The severity of this practice is highlighted in the following anecdote from a bear bile farm in Northwest China. A mother bear, hearing her cub howling in terror as the workers were about to make the incision for the tube that would likely milk bile from the poor cub twice a day for the next 5-10 years, managed to break free from her cage and charge to her cub. When she realized she couldn’t free her child from its confines the mother bear reached in and strangled the cub whereby she promptly ran head first into a wall killing herself. Such bizarre acts are testament to the extreme brutality of the process in China, where it is part of a surprisingly large business. Powdered Bear bile can sell for around 20 USD per gram and The Humane Society of the United States says that a bear gallbladder can sell for more than $3,000 in Asia. ‘A Controversial Cure,’ A characteristically informative and moving documentary by film maker Jonah Kessel offers a glimpse into the industry.

By some reports there are several dozen companies in China with upwards of 10,000 bears in captivity, while others report the number as high as 20,000. One company alone, China’s largest producer of bear bile, Guizhentang Pharmaceuticals, based in Fujian Province, boasts over 500 endangered moon bears. The company wants to go public on the Chinese stock exchange and double its number of captive-bred bears.

A New York Times report by Andrew Jacobs and Jonah Kessel explains the reaction to Guizhentang Pharmaceuticals’ I.P.O. by China’s nascent animal rights movement, “Protesters in bear suits picketed drugstores, hackers briefly brought down Guizhentang’s Web site and more than 70 Chinese celebrities, including the basketball star Yao Ming and the pop diva Han Hong, circulated a petition calling on the stock exchange to reject the I.P.O.” The animal rights movement in China is small compared to its American or European comrades but it has been increasing and winning successes through direct actions and social media campaigns. The New York Times piece quotes Deborah Cao on the burgeoning animal rights movement, “It’s a bottom-up, grass-roots movement, one that is contributing to an emerging civil society increasingly aware of individual rights and obligations, be it to humans or animals.”

The IFAW subway campaign is part of this multimedia public awareness project for greater animal rights in China. And, if we accept Deborah Cao’s analysis, that such a campaign is part of empowering the emerging civil society to be more rights aware, whether for animal or human rights, then these creative billboards are a more significant artifact in public space than they may first appear to be.

The Scaffolding is Down

Perusing Walls in China: Posters and Symbolic Power

This is the third entry in a series on semiotic analysis, Uyghurs, and public space in China. For earlier entries please see, Deconstructing ‘Minzu’, and Museumized Signification, China and Representational Violence. Or visit my index at the top of the page for all previous articles dealing with Symbolic Power, the politics of representation, China, Xinjiang, Uyghurs, and the like. As with other posts on this topic, although the specific point of entry to this conversation deals with the Uyghurs the tactics and artifacts of symbolic violence by the state are the same for other subaltern groups, not only in China but as a transferable model to others such sites. For this reason, an understanding and analysis of a particular phenomena has broader application.

Traveling around Xinjiang one often observes a stark demarcation between Han and minority space and inscription. In Yarkand, for example, Southeast of Kashgar this demarcation is starkly drawn along two streets, with Han exclusively living and working along Xincheng Lu [New City Road] and Uyghurs living along Laocheng Lu [Old City Road]. This is an important observation for two reasons. It relates to the opportunity for Uyghurs to reach out to Han and challenge their signification. Secondly, in predominantly Han neighborhoods there is not the same prevalence of the kind of public inscriptions as in Uyghur neighborhoods.

For example, on every Uyghur house in all the towns and villages in Xinjiang, there is one or a combination of three plaques near the door. These read Wenming Jiating [Civilized Household], Pingan Jiating [Safe Household], and Wuxing [Five Star]. However, I never observed such inscriptions on Han houses. The apparent meaning, a designation of worth conferred by the authority of the state, the state synonymous with a Han majority, coupled with other observations maintains the signification. The following analysis of public inscriptions is based on posters found in what could be considered general public space. While there are kinds of inscriptions that occur only in Uyghur areas, there is another that occurs in public areas with both Han and Uyghur traffic.

General public space in Xinjiang is marked by the ubiquity of banners, slogans and posters, discussed elsewhere. I found, and scholars such as Gardner Bovingdon and Dru Gladney have noted similar restrictions, that Uyghurs in Xinjiang are generally apprehensive to speak about such things but after several conversations on the street a pattern emerged. The majority of Uyghurs I encountered who were willing to discuss them treated them as propaganda. If we apply the same semiotic analysis as in previous posts we will discover another artifact of symbolic power’s domination over Uyghur social space. I observed the following posters in Korla, you can view them in an earlier post.

Jun Ai Min, Min Yong Jun, Junmin Tuanjie Yi Jiaqing [The military loves the people, the people embraces the military, the military and the people united are one family]. In the upper right hand corner, saluting in stoic patriotism, are three Han officers, one from each branch of the military. They are facing toward the red field of the Chinese flag, with its golden stars creased in the wind. In front of the flag are four white doves. At the center of the image, behind the text, are rows of soldiers in camouflage. The bottom of the image shows pictures of the Great Wall and the iconic front of the Forbidden City, Mao’s portrait hangs visibly over the entrance. Compressed at the very bottom left of the image is an old Uyghur man with a white beard and black skull cap. He is handing a red basket of gifts to a phalanx of soldiers.

Jun Min Qing, Jing Min Qing, Chuchu Ningju AiGuo Qing [Civil military sentiment, Civil Police Sentiment, Everywhere a Coherent Patriotic Sentiment]. Sweeping from the lower left corner upward to the top right is a large field of red, the Chinese flag, victoriously splattering the background. At the center of the image are two large white doves. In the top left corner three Uyghurs are facing a Chinese police officer, with two more officers behind him. The Uyghurs’ faces tell of some unknown sorrow or concern as they shake the hand of the Han officer who is smiling confidently. Across the bottom of the poster, two uniformed Han officers are standing, smiling at an old Uyghur man with a small wispy beard and a Hotanese wool hat. The Uyghur man appears sunken and weak while the Han officer is plump and reaching out farther to meet the old man’s slightly withdrawn hands.

Aside from obvious superficial differences, the signification of these two posters is the same. The first observation of note is that the Uyghurs depicted in both images are clearly receiving the support of the Han. The juxtaposition of the elderly, even frail, Uyghur man next to the younger Han officers reinstates the signification we saw above in the museum. The signified is an undeveloped people progressing under the support of the Party. The Uyghur, signifier, here is depicted as weak and in need of assistance. In relationship to the signified concept of provider, given form by the image of the Han officers, the significations are understood in relation to one another. The Uyghur is poor, the Han is strong.

The common image of the doves between the two images plays on the relationship of doves with peace. It encourages a peaceful reliance on the support of the Han. The text itself propels the visual meaning. It speaks of peaceful coexistence under the care of the military, police, and party. The space taken up by the flag in both images and the depiction of the Great Wall and Forbidden City, both powerful nationalistic symbols, further stresses the magnificence of the Party. We see a vibrant symbolic artifact that reinstates the marginalization of Uyghurs, under the Party. The comments below highlight a number of interpretations of these images made after examining photographs taken of the images. It is important to note that the discussion of these images took place outside of China, within the Uyghur diaspora community.

The first and third responses are from Uyghurs who have been living outside of China for four and five years, respectively, and are no longer Chinese citizens. The second response was made by a Uyghur student who has been studying abroad for several years and plans to return to China after completing studies.

Han people are government people but Uyghur people are not government people…. Han people are police but Uyghur people are not police. Han people help Uyghur people. The Government says the Han helps the Uyghur people and also says Chinese government helps Uyghur people. And also, in Chinese news you must say minorities are very happy. Happy! Happy! Happy!

But not every Uyghur knows the real meaning of what the Chinese are doing. This provocation, if many Uyghurs are not so knowledgeable and don’t pay attention to the real meaning, when they see they know it is not reality. One day you are arresting Uyghurs and then you print image to lie. Children maybe don’t realize this.

All the people, for example the young people see this and they will be upset. But little children will see this and they may think something different, so it can change Uyghur’s minds after a long time.

These comments illustrate an immediate perception of domination, one that can be  understood by an application of our analysis. They demonstrate a sentiment that while these posters may be interpreted as false by a number of Uyghurs, they are still capable of affecting others.  Younger residents may be influenced by the messages on the posters. However, according to the three comments, they perceive these posters as empty propaganda that serves to instill a dominant narrative that does not conform to their perceptions of reality, but rather hopes to maintain domination. We begin to understand the power on the walls.

The comments in this section point to a shared perception that the prevalent minority signification of an undeveloped subaltern is as a source of domination. Many appear to equate this representation with either the lack or denial of education. As a few respondents above noted, this signification is perceived as a lie, perpetuated by the regime. But, Camus noted, “you can rebel equally well against a lie as against oppression (Camus, 2008: 13).” Does the rebelling actor target the teller of the lie or the lie itself, i.e. a particular signification or the regime from which it is promulgated? How is the decision to resist either the representation or the regime influenced by perceptions of opportunity? Here is where Judith Butler, and others, offer the valuable concept of resignification, a kind of semiotic resistance. I will touch on this in future posts.

Camus, Albert (1953/2008). The Fastidious Assassins. London: Penguin Books.

Visualizing an Imagined Community

Following the three year anniversary of the Urumqi protests and the recent supposed Hotan plane hijacking attempt, which the Uyghur Human Rights Project warns should be viewed with extreme caution, it seems pertinent to introduce a little of the visuals behind China’s rhetoric of ethnic harmony. It is the same rhetoric of ethnic harmony, also called Han Chauvinism (大汉主义), that provides the foundation for constructing not only the imagined community (see Benedict Anderson) of China’s 56 ethnic groups, but is at the core of party discourse on the separatist threat, the terrorists and Dalai clique of Tibetan or Uyghur conflict. The party works hard to indoctrinate the population into believing that China’s ethnic minorities have benefited greatly from the largess, the affirmative action, the development of periphery, and that any grumbling is out of kilter with reality, a slap in the face to the Party and the PLA who freed these backward minority people from the abusive Khans ruling over them, in the case of the Northwest, or the authoritarianism of a few centuries of Dalai Lama exploitation, as the CCP’s official narrative was recently parroted by a French Communist in the online publication Dissident Voice. The problem with the narrative on ethnic unity is that it is rife with chauvinism. In the sense of colonialism introduced my Michael Hechter, it represents a kind of Internal Colonialism. However, this is certainly not a transgression that the UK or the US is free from, but theirs is not the topic of inquiry here today. I merely want to recognize the atrocities committed against the native populations of the United States, and how they have been white washed by mainstream education and media; the myth of the Old West and the founding of America has been carefully crafted discursively to create an alternate history and identity for the native populations of the United States, in much the same way, according to a number of experts, as is taking place in China concerning their more contentious ethnic groups today.

As I mentioned above, the narrative presented by the central government is one of a unified nation, where all 56 ethnic groups are living together in harmony. This is the message one gets from New Year Eve Gala presentations, anniversaries or special celebrations, when the Chinese nation tunes in to CCTV and other channels that simulcast programing featuring the country’s myriad ethnic groups represented in traditional dress, singing, dancing, and entertaining. But what about when, as James Fallows and others have written about, the 56 minorities in traditional dress are actually 56 Han in costume? What about these representations, those performed or inscribed, museumized or broadcast, how are they understood by the represented individuals? What is the logic behind official representations of minority populations? What is the political and social expediency, for the institution monopolizing the symbolic power to give name and reality, and what is the result, for those thus categorized?

The concern rests particularly when the representation creates a distinct hierarchy, whereby the designated group or individual is stripped of the agency to participate in the realm of creating labels and categories, the very labels and categories designed to define and corral them. This is linguistic persecution, what Zizek, and others, calls symbolic violence. But what force allows for the designation to gain resonance with the population? If it does not represent a material phenomenon, which presumably it does not if it needs to be frequently broadcast or imprinted in public-as it is-what allows for it to gain resonance then? It is this very reproduction in public which produces a kind of forced reality, and one that after generations of reproduced symbols begins to form a power of its own, according to Bourdieu.

Deconstructing the narratives, performances, and inscribed images of representation, those that results in symbolic violence, is complicated. It requires a careful reading of the material and symbolic, the social and historical, it is a semiotic and phenomenological process. Below I will not delve into a conversation with the images. I will save that for a future post. Below are a series of posters, pictures taken in several cities in Xinjiang in 2011. They tell a story, an official story, part of the way China chooses to define itself; according to the anthropologist and China expert Dru Gladney, this is “a point that is critical to China’s representation of itself to itself, and to the international sphere (Gladney, 1994: 96).” Therefore, in order to unpack the material ramifications of these representations qua claims of ethnic abuse, human rights violations, and the like or to analyze China’s discussion of its status within broader transnational conflicts qua the ‘war on terror’ or cross border disputes between Tajikistan or Pakistan, or finally in order to simply understand how a regime relies on images to promote a certain narrative, I present the following images for consideration. This post will be followed with a deeper discussion in the future.

“Recognition of Chinese Nationalities”
“All Ethnic Groups Create China”

“Recognition of an Ancestral Homeland”
“Our Common Home”
“China’s long history is a shared history for all the peoples of this ancestral land, living and developing together in one homeland”

“Civil military sentiment, Civil Police Sentiment, Everywhere a Coherent Patriotic Sentiment.”

“The military loves the people. The people embraces the military. The military and the people united are one family.”

Gladney, Dru (1994). “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/ Minority Identities,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1.

Urban Exploration Gallery by Urbanartcore

Considering that in the last just over two months I have drifted through six countries, from leaving my short home in North Africa, to a whirlwind through the UK, to a long awaited visit to the US, to a return to China, my mind has been pulled taught through myriad urban and individual landscapes, through contemplations on multiple themes. For this reason I have let up on posting. A number of people have pointed this out and I apologize. I will attempt to rectify this issue in the coming weeks with a return to more regular posting as I change gears to fit my place in Beijing, with a new focus on writing. Please stay tuned.

With all this, of course, I have been thinking a lot of about travel recently, about both planned and organized travel and the more free-form exploration of situationism and Buddhism, that of the derive and meditation. As I have been drifting through the convoluted and labyrinthine hutongs of Beijing I have kept constant a thought about digging deeper than the surface image, about piercing the outer husk of form and substance that makes up the city and faces of urban life. There is a lot more to it than that but for this simple, long promised, poorly executed, return to rambling I just wanted to share a recent photography collection from Urbanartcore on urban exploration. The piece begins by noting:

What makes an urban exploration photographer noticed or well-known? Is it the number of photos he or she has collected, the calculated risk they take, or is it just the general hype about this new urban adventure? None of these – the most important reason behind any urban exploration photography hero is the extraordinary photos he or she has taken!

I will be posting more visual and textual references to urban exploration, space, place, and theory in the coming months but until the next entry of my own work and thoughts, enjoy this brief collection of images, from vertiginous to troglodyte, available at Urban Exploration Photography.

Arbitrary Urban Chaos, Jerusalem 2008

RUIN PORN AND DERELICT DEBBIE

Image from Sophie Fiennes' documentary on Anslem Kiefer

“It’s romantic, it’s nostalgic, it’s wistful, it’s provocative. It’s about time, nature, mortality, disinvestment.” – Greco

Recently I came across an exploratory article on the voyeuristic art of “ruin porn.” In a somewhat humorous similarity of terms to riot porn, the ruin porn of today elicits the hedonistic drive, the aesthetic: both intellectual and sensuous, to hunt down derelict urban spaces, and rural husks, to explore the lost sides of development and decay, to find beauty in the cruelty of images. It can be an individualistic satori at the first sight and shudder release or an orgiastic experience for groups of urban explorers, chattering away to themselves about the good luck of the find. Exploring the abandoned, reclaimed, abandoned spaces, rich in texture-seen and superimposed by the metaphysics of Bachelard’s imagination, can present a number of fascinating distractions from the banalities of plastic commodified modernity. It can lead to pondering questions of permanence and beauty, as the planned beauty of great buildings falls to ruin a whole new subculture finds its truest beauty revealed.

In a January 6 Atlantic article Joann Greco examines “The Psychology of Ruin Porn” and the enthralling textures of Mathew Christopher‘s photographic autopsy of the American Dream. Greco writes:

“Pursuing and photographing the old is an addictive hobby. Dozens of blogs and online galleries share strategies for entry and showcase ever-bulging collections of moss-covered factory floors and lathe-exposed school buildings.

There’s no shortage of theories as to just why these images (in this case, a long-shuttered mental asylum) fascinate us. They “offer an escape from excessive order,” says Tim Edensor, a professor of geography at Manchester Metropolitan University who studies the appeal of urban ruins. “They’re marginal spaces filled with old and obscure objects. You can see and feel things that you can’t in the ordinary world.”

Len Albright, a 31-year-old Princeton post-doctoral student who’s tagged along with ruin explorers in Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, believes the experience is “more about the sense of ownership than anything else.”

He describes the derring-do involved in scaling urban ruins. “There’s this whole strategy for figuring out how to get in,” he says. “They start by hiding in the tree line at the edge of the property, checking for security guards. Then one of them dashes to the wall of the building. He starts looking for unlocked doors or busted out windows. There’s a lot of creeping and crawling, almost like a military operation.”

But for Matthew Christopher, the man who snapped the photograph described above, it was — at least in the beginning — more about curiosity. Only as he stood amid the eerily silent hallways and peeling ceilings of a similarly crumbling institution did he truly understand its role in the history of mental health. “When I visited the abandoned Philadelphia State Hospital, and then some of the others, I was able to connect the dots, to see the progress of treatment through the years,” Christopher says. “Architecture and the ethos of the times became linked for me.”

Image Source: Mathew Christopher's Abandoned America

Christopher’s work is well suited to elicit emotions and questions on time and nature, steel and earth, flesh and alloy. It draws the viewer into a texture rich world and, in much the same way as Anslem Kiefer, invites its audience to rethink the past and challenge accepted narratives of progress. Greco’s piece is a wonderful light into the tunnel of not only urban exploration and the photography of derelict spaces but an invitation to rethink physical space, urban meaning and the interstices of structure and significance.

Christopher’s work pulses with a kind of reanimated life, but I would also direct anyone interested in the visually stimulating urban reclaimation process toward the user generated forum at Derelict Places. This forum is for all those interested in the history and documentation of urban abandonment and decay, of dereliction from field to factory. It is a fantastic concept and one which brings a kind of prosumer, producing and consuming, legitimacy to the thesis underlying discussions of re-envisioning lost spaces as a new coming together of ideas and creation. It takes abandoned space and directs it into the visual collective consciousness of its viewers. By bringing lost segments of society, first hidden buildings, into focus a renovation in ideology on what it means to live together may too come into focus, a focus freed from the overzealous commodification of modern society-which brought many of these places first to life, only to let them die.

I took these final five pictures in Beijing in 2009.