This episode of the Sinica podcast offers a great range of topics. Kasier Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn eruditely and entertainingly as ever guide China Heritage Quarterly editor, Australian National University Professor, and veteran China expert Geremie R Barme through the halls of remembering history at Hangzhou’s bucolic West Lake. From there they move into an examination of China’s place in the world, as the title might imply. What role might China rise to and what forms of power will it exert, how changing geo-politics might alter, impede, or advance domestic or international decisions. Noteworthy among this examination is the realization that, despite great strides in economic development, until certain protracted issues of social concerns are resolved the country will never advance past a certain point.
In this sense, incantations of, inter alia, the likes of Mother Jones and early labor agitation, the fight for universal rights, the points of contention that fueled unrest in the developing United States of the 19th and 20th century, which have since been put to rest, so claims the episode-although Occupy Movements might point to a recession in these rights-has allowed for other developments to take place in the so called developed world. Until China can truly begin to address the issues of human rights, labor and land rights in particular-or issues of arbitrary detention and torture-the social and economic developments China has been so lauded for will level out. As long as these concerns, and yearly exponential rises in mass-incidents and protests, Wukan the most noteworthy of late, continue, development will slow. Again raising questions of quantitative methods: how much can we really tell by reading GDP and such indicators?
The program moves on to mention, as I have discussed elsewhere, that true culture should be conceived outside of State funding. When the government conspires to construct and promulgate culture it cheapens and hallows out culture as to produce an empty husk of meaningless form capable only of potentially generating large sums of money or spreading constructed narratives for social control. In terms of the commodification of art, they mention the 798 art district in Beijing, where, save from a few remaining galleries, the spaces are more temples to consumerism garbed in the tunic of expression and creativity than anything else. Put differently, in many respects the last lingering inscriptions and artifacts of untrammeled free expression or critical performance is scrawled on the walls outside the galleries themselves, where street artists have reclaimed corners to issue a threat, a challenge, or an absurd proposition. In some respect, although I haven’t been in quite some time, seeing the chaotic multichromatic nonsense on the walls, and the ruin porn-so to speak-of the old machine parts factory was far more appealing than venturing into the constructed spaces within.
What role can culture play in developing China? In challenging official, constructed narratives of history and present? How independent artists, journalists, musicians, writers, are working to re-articulate cultural capital and challenge CCP cultural hegemony in the hutong bars, cafes, homes, and minds of Beijing or beyond is where the discussion in the podcast ends, and where the excitement of exploring China for oneself begins. For a superb example of one group involved in just such an exploration is the Shanghai based creative agency Edge: Celebrating Chinese Creativity.
Click here to listen to the podcast.