Artwork or Propaganda? Core Chinese Socialist Values in London - SOAS China Institute

//Artwork or Propaganda? Core Chinese Socialist Values in London

Artwork or Propaganda? Core Chinese Socialist Values in London

Brick Lane, 7th August 2023. – Photo credit: VOA

By Chi Zhang | 05 September 2023

On 5 August 2023, 24 Chinese characters in red appeared on a graffiti-covered wall along London’s Brick Lane, whitewashed and spray-painted by a group of young Chinese artists. The 12 words, the core Chinese socialist values: prosperity, democracy, civilization, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, rule of law, patriotism, dedication, integrity, and friendliness, are a common sight on the streets of China. It is even a political obligation for ordinary citizens to memorise them in that specific order. The artwork prompted a deluge of criticisms from both those who supported or against the Chinese Communist Party. The creators of the initial artwork received threatening online messages, including death threats.


I see the initial painting as an artwork rather than mere propaganda because the activity’s planner, self-identified as Yique (一鹊), refrained from taking sides, choosing instead to craft a narrative that remains open to interpretation. He expressed his love for the country, yet this ambiguity allows for different interpretations, as his love can be interpreted as what drove him to criticise the Party. Yique has only accepted one interview, with the BBC, where he claimed his artwork challenged the perceived hypocrisy in the concepts of freedom of speech and Western centrism. His artwork hence achieved its intended provocativeness, and the public reaction was much stronger than expected.


The core of artistic value lies in its ambiguity. This artwork offers an avenue for intervention on multiple layers. It challenges established cultural classifications and hierarchies sanctioned by the Chinese state, tests the British society’s acceptance of contentious ideologies, amplifies latent anxiety and fear regarding a foreign culture, and altogether thrusts these discomforts into the spotlight.


Although the artwork initially bore a striking resemblance to communist propaganda, it has in fact transformed into a form of political satire. Through this collective effort, the absurdity of the 12-word message when placed within the context of uncensored reality came to light. The ambiguity evokes parallels with political doublespeak, wherein certain terms come to dominate public perception by amplifying some issues while downplaying others (such as human rights violations). Once the 12 words find their place on a wall dedicated to graffiti – an art form often used for satire and critique – it becomes clear how quickly propaganda can be subverted into satire. The process of preparing the wall itself could be subject to interpretation – ‘whitewash’ is explained in dictionaries as ‘to make something bad seem acceptable by hiding the truth’. The white underlying it serves not only to provide space for the red characters and command attention but is also a reminder of the omnipresence of the party-state and a canvas for re-creation. This ambiguity elevates this piece of artwork from being mere propaganda material to a space in which strong emotions such as anger, anxiety, fear and trauma, emerge through the subsequent re-creation. In this sense, it is highly successful in achieving the creator’s goal to provoke and explore what can arise from it.


My paper on Chinese nationalism with Yiben Ma, unpacks the concepts of ‘high-level black’ (高级黑), a term used to describe a gesture which appears flattering but with the praise being so excessive, it becomes a mockery of the official ideology. The original artwork was also labelled as such, as the artists were criticized by Chinese nationalists for reinforcing a negative perception of China.


At Brick Lane, propaganda indeed appeared to have evolved into political satire. The arrangement and layout of these 12 words themselves could not be mistaken for anything other than the Chinese official slogans. However, together with an additional slogan – “One child, nation’s grace, elders thrive in government’s embrace” (只生一个好 政府来养老), the combination transformed into a satirical reflection. Anyone who reads this would immediately know that it is far from a serious state endeavour to persuade people to have only one child, in the context of the dramatic shift from one-child policy into a three-children initiative as the government desperately seeks to counteract population decline. It is the context that collectively completes the untold message of these creations. The juxtaposition with protesting slogans nearby scrawled on by others since, the possibility that this artwork would have been censored if it were painted in China, and the notion of testing the boundaries of freedom of expression, collectively amplify the message they carry.


Another interesting layer of the story lies in the response to the artwork, which redirects attention to the initial stated intention, to test the UK’s purported tolerance towards diverse ideologies. The ‘export’ of Chinese culture, one perceived as a highly political, coercive, and intrusive, tapped into latent fears about the supposed invasion of the communist ‘other’. This fear is magnified especially considering that this artwork is created upon the erasure of pre-existing creations. Despite Yique’s claim of securing permission from previous artists, the complete obliteration of a wide array of artwork evokes memories of the fear under repressive regimes that often imposed a homogenizing, coercive regime of truth, suppressing existing differences.


Tower Hamlets Council, the local authority responsible for the area, had the artwork removed in line with its ‘unwanted and illegal graffiti’ policy. However, the council only removed China-related graffiti while leaving other nearby graffiti intact. This prompts the question of whether a piece of art can be classified as ‘unwanted and illegal’ based solely on its ideological position. The removal action appears to validate the creator’s argument concerning the inconsistent upholding of freedom of expression in the UK.

Chi Zhang is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of St Andrews, and an Associate Member of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. She has published in the journals such as the Journal of Contemporary China, International Feminist Journal of Politics, Terrorism and Political Violence, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Politics and Religion and Asian Security. She is the editor of Human Security in China: A Post-Pandemic State and the author of Legitimacy of China’s Counter-Terrorism Approach: The Mass Line Ethos.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.