London calling with China’s great wall of graffiti

Big red characters painted on a white background extoll the ‘core socialist values’ of the CCP

London’s Brick Lane, famed for its street art, appears to be the scene of the latest face-off between pro-democracy supporters and Chinese loyal to President Xi Jinping’s rule.

Over the weekend, big red Chinese characters painted on a white background, extolled “core socialist values,” sentiments first expressed by Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, and embraced by the Chinese Communist Party.

Most of the slogans have since been covered by anti-CCP sentiments, and a Chinese student at the heart of the row has received death threats.

Early on Saturday, people whitewashed a section of the street art wall, then spray painted a set of 12 two-character words in Chinese. 

They included “Democracy,” “Civility,” “Freedom,” “Equality,” “Justice” and “The Rule of Law.”

As the slogans attracted negative remarks online, people went to Brick Lane to paint comments critical of Beijing such as “Free Uighurs” and “Free Tibet.” There were references to the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

Original slogans

When Voice of America visited the site on Monday, only the word “Friendly” remained on the wall with the other sentiments covered up by slogans targeting the CCP.

It remains unclear if the people who painted the original graffiti were being serious or ironic.

Wang Hanzheng, a Royal College of Art student who signs his work with the name Yi Que, named the piece East London’s Socialist Core Values and said the graphic slogans “did not carry a strong political message.”

“I wanted to see how the core values of socialism could bring a different impact to Brick Lane, which has long been symbolized and commercialized as a space of freedom. I wanted to explore a new way of commercialized artwork,” he added.

Xi Jinping has pushed Chinese nationalism. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A point of contention was whether it was reasonable for Yi Que to cover multiple artworks at once with white paint, even though local graffiti collages are usually replaced by others every few weeks.

On Monday, Yi Que issued a statement, stating that he held “no political stance.”

He said the work aimed to provoke discussions and it showcased conflicts arising from two extreme views. He added that he loved China, but he also has the right to reflect on the country through art.

He went on to defend his work and said the group had consulted local graffiti artists before whitewashing the wall. He added that the artists did not mind their work being covered.

Yi Que also said he and his team were facing cyberbullying and death threats. His personal information and that of his parents had been put online.

Street artist

“My parents are already quite old. I implore you not to do this. I am very concerned about their safety. Some of my social media accounts have been restricted, but at this moment, I cannot remain silent or back down,” he said.

“I really don’t want to affect my family and friends. I am willing to bear all the doubts and consequences. At the same time, I hope people from all walks of life and scholars can offer some assistance,” Yi Que added.

“I am in the midst of severe persecution,” he concluded.

The whitewashed area of slogans covered a tribute to a popular street artist, Marty, painted by his friend, Benzi Brofman.

On Instagram, Brofman said painting over works like his was part of the street art culture.

Slogans in London targeted the Communist Party of China. Photo: VOA

He told VOA Cantonese that he was focused on creating new artwork and would “prefer not to waste time and energy on this issue.”

“My mind is set on my future art projects that will, hopefully, bring joy and comfort to people,” Brofman said.

In an interview with VOA Cantonese, Australia-based Chinese political cartoonist Badiucao called the graffiti “a crude piece of work.”

Regardless of whether Yi Que was trying to be patriotic or satirical, the real cost was borne by local street artists who had put in weeks or even months of effort for their work, Badiucao pointed out. 

“Some may ask, isn’t graffiti about free expression? Aren’t all artworks eventually covered by new ones? Yes, indeed, street art is like a carousel, but street artists don’t cover other artworks randomly,” he said. 

‘Thousand waves’

“Often, we choose to cover old works or ones that have been tagged as heavily damaged. For new works, especially those with commemorative significance, artists tend to choose to show respect,” Badiucao added.

“Perhaps in the eyes of many, this act has caused a thousand waves and is, therefore, a success,” he said, adding: 

It gave almost everyone what they wanted. Yi Que gained massive fame through the spectacle, ‘little pinks’ patriots got the pride of their slogans being seen in the heart of London [and] dissenters got evidence exposing the Chinese Communist Party’s threat to freedom of speech.

“However, after the carnival of chaos, it’s the local artists who are forced to pay the price. They have involuntarily borne the cost of this publicity stunt,” Badiucao concluded.

This is an edited version of an article, republished courtesy of Voice of America. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.