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China Offers a Different Freedom

Analysis by Antoaneta Becker

LONDON, Jun 29 2011 (IPS) - For a populist premier like China’s Wen Jiabao, the irony of landing in a European capital celebrating the art of one of the Chinese communist party’s most outspoken critics who had been imprisoned by Beijing for months was never lost.

Four days before the Chinese premier arrived in London, Beijing released on bail the artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei, claiming the government critic had confessed to tax evasion. With three exhibitions of Ai’s works in London, the UK capital had been the place to celebrate courage and freedom of artistic expression during the three months that the Chinese artist was detained.

“I’m sure they (the Chinese) must have known what a selling point Ai’s detention has been for all of his art exhibitions in London,” said Theo Edwards, who was visiting Ai’s public sculpture in the courtyard of Somerset House last week.

After drawing thousands of visitors to the Tate Modern last fall, ten tons of Ai’s million handcrafted porcelain sunflower seeds returned to the gallery this month arranged in a cone-shaped heap. A dedicated show of Ai at Lisson Gallery consists of 31 Han Dynasty vases that the artist had splattered with industrial paint.

The most popular of all has been Ai’s rendition of the famous Chinese zodiac that once adorned the summer palace of the emperor Qianlong outside Beijing, which in 1860 was ransacked by French and British troops.

Unlike the exquisite bronze originals that were designed and modelled by the Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione, Ai’s 12 animal heads are oversized and rather crude, displayed as prey on bronze pikes around the courtyard fountain. The originals were looted, and while some of them have since returned to China, the whereabouts of five are still unknown.

“It is so critical of us, the British colonial invaders, by presenting in a mocking way what we tried to steal from China,” said Alice Jones, another visitor to the show. “It is a jab at our historical consciousness. And it does us credit for displaying it.”

Having set a political tone with Ai’s release before its start, Wen’s visit to Britain was full of symbolism as it progressed.

Ai’s release from detention on Wednesday was followed by the discharge of political activist and blogger Hu Jia from prison on Sunday, after completing a three-and-a-half year sentence on subversion charges. Both men have been fearless critics of the country’s human rights record before their detention. Now free, they have reportedly said they will remain quiet.

With the critics released but silenced, premier Wen visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon- Avon and made an impassioned plea for more understanding between Chinese and British people, and more respect between the two countries.

“It is important for political leaders to respect the creativity of the people of other countries,” he said, marking the beginning of a charm offensive aimed at asserting China’s softer side to international audiences.

While Chinese state leaders are not much given to publishing opinions in the western media Wen Jiabao took the unusual step of writing in both the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times.

Wen pledged that the China of tomorrow will be a country that “fully achieves democracy and the rule of law.” The country is on a journey that will inevitably mean granting its huge population “freedom, equality and human rights,” he said.

But he cautioned that change will be a “long and arduous task” and that China’s democracy may not resemble that of the West, as freedom will be “achieved in different ways and forms in different societies and countries.”

“This time’s visit is more about political gestures than about business,” said Wei Tao, a Chinese entrepreneur in London who went to the Royal Society in London in anticipation of seeing the premier. “China is under a lot of pressure for its behaviour in the South China Sea and for its handling of protests at home. Wen needs to do something about it. Besides he is retiring next year and this will be his legacy.”

China and Britain announced business deals worth 1.4 billion pounds (2.2 billion dollars). But even as Wen appealed for more openness to Chinese investment, he chose carefully the message his visit was sending to UK businesses.

He attended the UK launch of the new MG6 Magnette car at the Longbridge, Birmingham plant which was bought by the Shanghai Automobile Industry Corporation four years ago. The car, which is designed in the UK, manufactured in China and assembled at Longbridge, is seen as a model of how British and Chinese businesses can work together.

The tough message was left to the Chinese ambassador to the UK to deliver. Liu Xiaoming said negative UK media coverage of Chinese investment and restrictions on visas were forcing Chinese companies to look away from Britain.

“Chinese businesses will compare – why should they invest in the UK, not France, Germany or other economies?” he told reporters on the eve of Wen’s visit Jun. 25-27.

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