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July 6, 2014

Censorship and conspiracy theory in China

Written by William Aitchison

I first visited China in 1997 when Westerners were few and far between and I had to stay in the designated hotels where soldiers and communist party representatives could keep a careful eye on me. I would never have predicted that I would be invited to return some twelve years later in 2009 to do an artistic residency on the theme of Chinese conspiracy theories but that is exactly what happened. Clearly, something very significant happened in those twelve years in order to allow this to happen.


The research I wanted to do grew from a performance lecture I was developing at the time which attempted to map out conspiracy theories in the post-9/11 world. Taking Nietzsche’s critique of false causality as my starting point I had constructed an elaborate and ambiguous web of explanations that stretched across art, politics and mega-events such as the increasingly talked about ‘end of the world’ in 2012. Based in London, as I was, I also needed to address The Olympics and, at the same time, also felt that my material betrayed an English language bias. It was for this reason I went to Beijing to understand better what London had coming in the near future and to see in which ways the conspiracies that flourished in the Chinese-speaking world differed from those in the English-speaking world.


The research in Beijing was conducted through a residency with the Belgian organisation Institute for Provocation and was greatly aided by having a translator work closely with me throughout, without whom this work would have been impossible. As expected, there was no shortage of conspiracies: trust within society appeared to be exceptionally low following a number of horrific scandals such as the notorious contamination of baby milk which led to a number of infant deaths. This was just one of a string of scandals that made explicit a system of rule of power rather than rule of law. With an increasingly mobile and educated population who were taking to the internet in a big way, this created a perfect climate for conspiracy theories to flourish. As I will show however, these conspiracies were not simply or even predominantly anti-governmental conspiracies; there was a more pervasive saturation of conspiracy discourse and the related phenomenon of superstition, into all spheres of life.


My Olympic enquiries revealed an interesting way in which superstition and conspiracy met in the form of the four mascots or fuwa, as they were called. A story circulated on Chinese social media in 2008 that the fuwa were cursed and that they predicted different disasters that happened in China that same year. One of the fuwa, it was said, represented a major train accident, another the protests that the Olympic torch encountered around the world, the third, major flooding in Southern China and the forth the Sichuan earthquake. At first this just sounded like the product of people with too much time on their hands and an overactive imagination but once I had become steeped in the official Olympic message the fuwa’s meaning shifted. This disaster theory provided just about the only space for resistance to the powerful, state-sponsored, modern China message. So popular was this theory that at one point there was a large online petition asking the government to remove the fuwa as mascots. Naturally, this was ignored and any mention of this story on social media actively suppressed by the state’s army of cyber censors.


I also began visiting fortune-tellers and asked them about their methods and got them to make predictions for me. I went, for example, to a Qi Gong master who used some very esoteric techniques involving the names of the scientists who created the Nuclear bomb, I Ching, numerology, the Chinese calendar and the five natural elements to predict things such as the Sichuan earthquake, AIDS and 9/11. He was essentially covering similar ground to Western conspiracy theorists but using native Chinese methods to provide alternative explanations. What was striking was that he was something of a celebrity who made predictions for business people, high ranking communist party members and actors, he was even in demand helping to write scenarios for films, so much had his ideas become mainstream. He would have been persecuted for this practice 40 years earlier but now he was positively flourishing.


In terms of state ideology I began to see how the communist party whilst officially being rationalist and against superstitions has increasingly embraced them as an integral part of Chinese culture as the party seeks to promote a specifically Chinese face. In this way the Olympic games were timed to open at 8.08 PM on 8/8/2008, 8 being the lucky number in China. The reasons for this embrace of traditional culture are complicated and can point to a resurgent nationalism and whilst I did not directly address these reasons in the performance, I did exploit this phenomenon of the ambiguous space in which the party accommodates superstition at the same time as superstitions potentially provide an indirect forum for criticism. Explanations based in superstition are necessarily indirect, and can thus become overtly popular, because unlike conspiracies which suggest someone is secretly making things happen, superstition suggests something is responsible for events. By removing the agent, the problem is still discussed but the potentially dangerous situation of identifying the authorities as being responsible for it is avoided.


As I started to better understand the face of conspiracy and superstition, I became increasingly aware that I had to find strategies to present this material in China and so I set about understanding the mechanisms of censorship in order that I might better work within and around them. This was a new challenge. Whilst I am not used to working with such restrictions in Europe and whilst I would never support them in my own society, I must admit that from an artistic point of view they did provide me with a useful tension that aided the creative process. For example, I noticed that China Radio International ran a story about a Chinese merchant ship that was attacked by Somali pirates off the coast of Africa and was saved by a large school of dolphins rising out of the water blocking the pirates’ speedboats. Improbable as the story was, it was illustrated with photos of the dolphins not only from the Chinese vessel’s point of view but also from the pirates’ point of view. This allowed me to explain the story as one which indicated that the pirates were working with the Chinese government, supplying images to the state news broadcaster that would serve as a warning to other pirates that the Chinese had the dolphins under their control. This was of course a ridiculous argument but it was one which was not directly confrontational and it still allowed the holes in the official story to be sufficiently exposed.


Performances were given in China at the Open Performance Art Festival (Beijing) and Chinese European Art Centre (Xiamen) and in these presentations I wanted to bring the sense of conspiracy into the present tense of the event itself. As the majority of the spectators spoke only limited English, a Chinese text was produced to show alongside me while I was speaking. The original English lecture was organised into chapters using a number of framing words such as “known” or “false”. These framing words were translated using google into a number of alternative Chinese translations which were themselves then automatically translated back into English creating a web of meanings that were scattered around the original concept sometimes deviating greatly and incorporating Chinese idioms. A summary text of each chapter of the lecture was then written in English and all of these deviating words and idioms were woven into the body of this text this text, which teased out differences in their meaning and context. This text, which appeared at times to argue against me betraying itself as being far from transparent, was professionally translated back into Chinese and projected alongside the lecture.


One intention in situating the performance between the two languages was to highlight the role language plays in the construction of meaning. Firstly in terms of how words never provide precise equivalents but rather create webs of analogous meanings which are subject to very different grammatical rules and used within alternative intellectual traditions. Secondly, in terms of how language creates in-groups and out-groups. The lecture was already an information overload in one language, and to simultaneously follow the precise details in two languages was all but impossible. Finally, in how the Chinese text veered on the side of caution giving the effect of staging the English and Chinese positions with regard to the different conspiracies. This was a necessary precaution as documents are easily reproduced in a way live performances are not and I had to ensure that the Chinese text, if read in isolation, was politically safe enough that nobody involved in the production would land in trouble and I’d be allowed to return to China.


I found the whole experience of working within these restrictions highly stimulating and not necessarily detrimental to the art. Censorship endows certain symbols with far greater power than they might otherwise possess simply because they are ‘sensitive’ such as a picture I used of George W. Bush sitting beside the Dalai Lama. By showing the two of them and then ironically repeating the Chinese media’s condemnation of them but within the context of a discussion of the Mayan calendar and 2012, the official discourse was maintained whilst being elided with some pretty fantasist ideas. In spite of this, the image retained considerable impact and caused a ripple of apprehension that loaded the performance with greater weight.


When I returned to Europe the restrictions were removed and everything in art was again permitted. The British situation could be characterised as, ‘you are allowed to say whatever you want, so long as nobody is listening’. I had to compare with China and admit that in my country public opinion was also deliberately shaped by the government in order, for example, to launch the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or push through the Olympics. The difference, as I perceived it, was that it was done not through censorship but instead through effective public relations, large budgets and a lightly regulated media. Whilst this is a slightly less objectionable mechanism it is relatively effective nonetheless with certain opinions heavily promoted and others effectively marginalised. I can only suppose that the Chinese authorities will slowly learn to more effectively utilise modern PR to shape public opinion too. Until then however, it will remain a fertile land for conspiracies, superstitions and coded forms of art.


William Aitchison is Artistic Director at Bill Aitchison Company and a research fellow at Birkbeck College. In 2007 he received the PhD degree at Goldsmiths College for his research on performance art & performer discipline.

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