by Daniel Graham
When he was last in China, Wang Xu showed a group of students the iconic image of “Tank Man”, staring down tanks on the day of the Tiananmen Square massacre. They did not recognise it.
“This may be performance art,” one said, trying to puzzle it out.
Mr Wang, a Chinese-Australian artist, unveiled his new exhibition at Verge Gallery in Sydney at the weekend. As pro-democracy demonstrations grip Hong Kong, his works commemorate the victims of Communist Party persecution in his homeland.
The Silenced: From 1957 Until Today is a series of paintings that honours over half a billion Chinese persecuted under Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Movement, a purge of intellectuals that is considered to mark the end of free speech China.
Mr Wang, who was born in China in 1949, came to Australia as a refugee after the 1989 Tiananmen protests. He was a finalist for the 2013 Archibald Prize. The exhibition was organised by the Sydney Democracy Network in association with the Sydney Fringe Festival.
At the opening of his most recent exhibition, Mr Wang said he uses his art to remind people that China’s economic development is not in line the growth of its citizens’ political freedoms.
“China has a unique socioeconomic model, where a one-party state can achieve its superpower dream, and the ruling party can claim this as the will of the people,” he said through an interpreter. “An autocracy can improve the economy on the back of slave labour.”
In 1957, Mao indicated that he was open to ideas for reform from intellectuals. But when Mao felt that calls for greater democratisation were too critical of Communist Party rule, reformists were denounced as counter-revolutionary Rightists.
Reprisals followed, in which 550,000 educated Chinese were removed from their jobs, many sent to labour camps to “reform their thinking”. Many died, with conditions exacerbated by the famine brought on by Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward.
The centrepiece of Wang Xu’s exhibition is a collection of dozens of portraits of purge survivors, who were interviewed by Mr Wang. Video of some interviews was also displayed. One woman, a teacher, recounted how she was forcibly separated from her three-month old infant and sent from her hometown to dig ponds. Others detailed violent and public humiliation heaped upon them for having spoken in favour of reform.
Mr Wang is concerned that Chinese history in the country is being distorted and in some cases forgotten. “Younger generations are being misled and deceived, and many people know nothing about the truth of history,” he said.
The exhibition was opened by Dr John Yu, the eminent paediatrician and Australian of the Year 1996, who said, “It is important that we see what happens historically; not only see but recognise it.”
Dr Yu said the history of free speech and political dissent in China holds a valuable lesson for Australia in the current political climate. “We need to be careful, as we feel paranoia about what is happening in the Middle East and how that affects Australia, that we don’t deny the democratic rights of other Australians.”
China’s commitment to a one-party system is currently being put to the test in Hong Kong. Elections are due to take place in 2017 for the city’s chief executive, and the Communist Party wants the final say on which candidates can stand. Demonstrations are being organised to protest the interference of Beijing in Hong Kong’s democracy. Protesters have so far faced tear gas and police pushback.
John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Sydney and director of the Sydney Democracy Network, said earlier this month that the protests were “pointing out the double standard to Beijing, very effectively. For example, half a million villages have free and fair elections where there is no filtering of candidates, so the question is ‘Why not in Hong Kong?’
“These are difficult questions to respond to from Beijing’s point of view. They talk of the dangers of constitutional crisis, they talk of political disorder, but what they’re really afraid of is the decline, the successful resistance to one-party rule.”
As Wang Xu pointed out, the freedom of speech guaranteed in the Chinese constitution was never implemented, and so the country’s history of dissent goes undocumented.