Chinese censorship laid bare

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Despite the 1,900 kilometres that separate it from the Chinese capital, the Lianzhou Foto festival fell prey to Beijing’s ever-watchful eye, with 200 of the 2,000 photographs initially on display removed from the walls. Getting the go-ahead for an international festival on this scale under Xi Jinping’s regime may have seemed like a small victory, but its latest edition illustrates how the Party has stepped up its censorship efforts.

 

The two main targets for the image police? Politics – in the term’s broadest sense, from migrants to security measures and environmental issues – and nudity.

49-year-old Ou Zhihang has been photographing himself since 2005, posing in front of places marked by scandal, catastrophe or rallies to remind viewers of the significant events the government has attempted to minimise or erase: The 300,000 babies poisoned by powdered milk formula, the expropriation of land by corrupt government officials, the explosion at a chemical plant, the disappearance of several booksellers, a railway accident, and the suicides of migrant workers’ children… Ou Zhihang strips down, hits his camera’s self-timer, and does a few push-ups as the camera snaps away, using his naked body and physical exertion as a way of imprinting the places in the viewer’s mind. In doing so, the photographs themselves become as controversial as the events. In his A Weak Road series, street photographer Liu Tao brings us a series of self-portraits in which he positions his naked body among the rubble of districts being demolished in Beijing.

While both photographers are carefully monitored by the Chinese authorities, Ou Zhihang and Liu Tao come under less hassle than artists such as Ren Hang and Lin Zhipeng, whose work shares a similar propensity for nudity, homosexuality and social media popularity among young people in China.

While censorship is alive, well and visible in exhibitions and galleries, it is less clear-cut and automatic on the Internet, where the audience and the ensuing risk of subversion are both greater. China’s intranet has its own internal social media networks, and serves as a highly effective filter. In April 2018, Chinese Twitter equivalent Weibo embarked on a ‘clean-up campaign’ that involved tracking down and deleting all content deemed to be violent, pornographic or gay in nature. In light of the mass online backlash and the LGBTI community’s outrage, the last of the three categories was ultimately removed. But the initial intent was highly revealing of the government’s strategy, with the authorities using regulations against pornography to censor any material that vaguely touches on sexuality, in particular when it veers away from the marital norm defined under the law dated 1949. The Chinese personal data and cyber security law was enacted in June 2017 and prohibits any mention of gay relations, which are considered in the same light as sexual abuse. Thus, Yang Fudong‘s female nudes exhibited in 2018 at the Shanghai Long Museum were more easily accepted than the intertwined bodies captured by Lin Zhipeng and Ren Hang.

Before he committed suicide in February 2017 at the tender age of 29, the latter had frequently been barred by censors from exhibiting or showcasing his work, accused of depicting ‘sexual liberation’ (a term that offers great scope for interpretation), ‘suspected sexuality’ and ‘pornography’. In this conservative, sexually prohibitive climate, and specifically because his work had been censored to such an extent, Ren Hang’s photography took on a political dimension he had never sought out.

 

Cover: Ren Hang’s monographic book. Taschen, 2016.

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