in Critic's Guides | 01 NOV 12
Featured in
Issue 151

The Year in Review - China

Anti-Japanese protests and the 18th National Congress have meant a rocky year in China

in Critic's Guides | 01 NOV 12

Anti-Japanese protest, Shenzhen, China, 16 September 2012; photograph: © AP Archive

As I write, anti-Japanese sentiment has gripped China, ignited by a row between the two countries over disputed islands. While many people have been demonstrating, and angry protesters besiege Japanese diplomatic missions and businesses in cities around the country, an increasing number of Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) users are analyzing the situation in an attempt to counter the extreme nationalism of many of the reactions.

2012 has been a rocky year in China as it anticipates a major power shift with the inauguration of a new president. The date for the opening of the 18th National Congress, when the changes will be announced, was pushed back time and again before finally being confirmed as 8 November. Many Weibo users have pointed out that such a nationwide eruption of resentment towards anything Japanese has been partially orchestrated by the government in an attempt to divert the public’s attention away from the omnipresent domestic social dissatisfaction to a diplomatic agenda.

The growing popularity of Weibo in China has generated an unprecedented interest in political discussion. It enhances the circulation and transparency of information concerning the social, legal and political systems, which have previously remained a blind spot in the country, and is proving an important platform for self-education and cultivating social and political awareness and responsibilities.

In September, the 6th Annual Meeting for Chinese Art Critics was held in Xi’an. Art critics, teachers and curators gathered to discuss the urgent issues that are so central to the discourse of art in China, such as how to localize dialogue about contemporary art. It’s not a new subject; it reflects a growing sense of anxiety among art practitioners in China about the West’s influence and our apparent inability to create a discourse of our own to describe and understand contemporary art.

There is an illusion among the Chinese art community that the West has a more developed art history, and that we’re late starters. When similarities emerge among works produced in China and the West, the assumption is often that the Chinese artist is a plagiarist. Not enough critics have properly acknowledged the complexity of the situation here, and even fewer have analyzed the connections between the conditions, thinking and practices in China with the rest of the world. Art doesn’t necessarily spring from a linear logic or straightforward history but can evolve and exist with its own energy and space. If to localize art means to pay more attention to our own context and make discoveries from fresh perspectives, it will be a positive development. Yet the kind of localization many of my Chinese colleagues are referring to is unfortunately not so far away from the kind of narrow nationalist approach as seen in the anti-Japanese movement currently sweeping the country. Art is ultimately an individual exercise – as is the aspiration for democracy and the creation of better social conditions. It’s the individual consciousness that needs to be awakened and recognized – much less a collective move, and even less a national mentality.