London’s Brick Lane, renowned for its vibrant street art, recently became the center of a contentious debate over freedom of expression and politics.
It all began when a group of young Chinese artists decided to paint over an existing graffiti mural with bright red slogans promoting China’s “core socialist values.” These 24-character slogans are familiar to those living in China as they regularly adorn billboards and feature on state television. While they might seem universal, promoting values like “democracy,” “freedom,” and “equality,” their interpretation by the Chinese Communist Party diverges significantly from Western understandings. One might even make an allusion to Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, China’s efforts to redefine important words and symbols to meet its totalitarian needs and forcing those definitions down people’s throats.
The decision to paint these slogans in London was controversial, to say the least. Many were outraged, especially because the painted-over mural included a tribute to a deceased street artist. Both local artists and many Chinese expatriates living in the UK expressed their discontent, especially on social media. While some saw the graffiti as a means of the artists expressing themselves and “exporting” Chinese values, others perceived it as a blatant act of erasing local art and promoting propaganda.
Not one to stay silent, the Brick Lane community responded. The very next day, the freshly painted slogans were covered in new graffiti. Some made references to China’s human rights record, while others alluded to literature, like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Messages like “no” were written before the words “democracy” and “freedom,” and more explicit critiques called for the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, to step down.
However, this artwork was short-lived. By Monday morning, the entire graffiti wall had been painted over in white by the Tower Hamlets Council. Yet, by Monday afternoon, more messages appeared. One poignant quote from Milan Kundera read, “The struggle of men against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Lyndon Li Shixiang, a Chinese activist, reflected on the events, stating that it was heartening to see Chinese individuals in the UK come together and express their political opinions. “It unites everybody,” he remarked.
However, the intentions behind the original Chinese slogans remained a topic of debate. While a statement by the artists called it an “adamant display of freedom of expression,” one of them hinted at a different motivation on Instagram, suggesting an attempt to challenge Western freedoms.
The subsequent backlash has been so intense that the same artist later claimed to have no political stance, fearing for his and his family’s safety due to the threats he received.
By Tuesday, the wall was once again painted over, its colors and messages silenced but not forgotten.
The events at Brick Lane highlight the complexities of expression, cultural understanding, and political ideologies in a globalized world and the concerted efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to push its propaganda and its agenda. Propaganda almost always successful to some degree, it is fortunate in this case that some artists in this community know better and were able to react.