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MeTube in China: Tiananmen Square’s Black Smoke Enshrouds Mao

China Journey: The Grrl at The Wall

I’m back, art-lings, but not exactly better than ever.

I had a fabulous time in China—a particularly exciting place to visit right now, thanks to both its increasingly dominant economy and its proliferating architecture-on-steroids:

Shanghai’s skyline, seen from my hotel windowRemCCTV.jpg
A tour-bus view of Rem Koolhaas’ Beijing headquarters for CCTV (China Central Television), still unoccupied due to a major 2009 fire that devastated its freestanding element on the left, which was to have housed a hotelRemHulk.jpg
A closer view of Koohaas’ fire-ravaged hulk, as it looks today

China fascinates not only because of its rapid development but also because of its bumpy transition from draconian Communist rule to what is now cryptically characterized there as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” One of those “characteristics” is that all the land is still owned by the state.

Our highly informative tour guides largely stayed away from discussing current politics. For example, we never heard a word about the fact that while our group was gathering in Beijing, so was the Communist Central Committee, hashing out its next Five-Year Plan (through 2015) and anointing

Xi Jinping asheir apparent to President Hu Jintao.

I have much to show and tell. But that may have to wait a while. For one thing, I’m struggling with a mainstream-media deadline. But far more seriously, the condition of my recently widowed mother, stable when I left for my long-planned vacation, is now regarded as grave. Needless to say, blogging is low on my list of priorities. (I may manage to post some videos, sporadically.)

Here’s a little taste of things to come: When I arrived at my Beijing hotel, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could access CNN on my room’s TV, and even more surprised that Chinese viewers had a chance to view this segment about

Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Chinese dissident and recent Nobel Peace Prize winner.

That opportunity was short-lived, however: About 55 seconds into the clip—after Liu had been likened to to

Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Václav Havel—the screen went dark. Another blackout, later in my trip, curtailed this segment on the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (pegged to his current Sunflower Seeds installation at London’s Tate Modern).

At about 3:13 into that clip, CNN’s reporter, Eileen Hsieh, quoted the artist saying that it came as “no surprise” to him that his blogs were blocked in China, since (among other provocations) he had posted the names of children killed, as a result of substandard school construction, during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. That broadcast observation brought Hsieh’s report to a premature end (immediately before Liu Xiaobo’s name was mentioned in the unexpurgated version).

It seems to me that the form of press censorship most dangerous to a dictatorship is partial censorship, allowing people to get a tantalizing taste of what they’re not supposed to see, and then frustrating and demeaning them by denying free access to the rest of the story.

This brings us to the CultureGrrl Blackout: The first site that my tour group visited after arriving in Beijing was Tiananmen Square, perhaps best know today for the famous pro-democracy protests of 1989. We arrived there only a week after Liu had been awarded his Nobel Peace Prize—an honor decried by the Chinese government as rewarding a convicted criminal.

As we approached the portrait of Mao that presides over the square, we gaped at a huge plume of billowing black smoke directly in front of the Chairman’s iconic visage. I wondered if I had stumbled upon a news story—perhaps a political demonstration inspired by Liu, who, previous to his current incarceration, had spent 21 months in
detention for his role as a leader in the Tiananmen uprising. So I impetuously whipped out my mini-camcorder and indiscreetly began intoning, “This is CultureGrrl…” (Who did I think I was, Christiane Amanpour?)

One of our guides, a Beijing native (whom you’ll hear in the video clip, below) mentioned that she had never before seen anything like that ominous-looking eruption, during her many visits there as a tourist guide. Upon hearing me babble to my camera about CNN’s Liu-related blackout, our tour’s leader, also from Beijing, instructed me to pocket my device immediately or risk its confiscation. A fellow American traveler later told me he had witnessed men being put into police cars at the scene of the fire. I never learned more.

In any event, here’s my aborted video snippet. You can glimpse Mao’s portrait at the center:

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