London’s Brick Lane, famed for its street art, appears to be the scene of the latest face-off between pro-democracy supporters and Chinese loyal to President Xi Jinping's rule.
Over the weekend, big red Chinese characters painted on a white background, extolled “core socialist values,” sentiments first expressed by Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, and embraced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Most of the slogans have since been covered by anti-CCP sentiments, and a Chinese student who led the sloganeers says he has received death threats.
Early on Saturday, people whitewashed a section of the street art wall, then spray painted a set of 12 two-character words in Chinese. The words included “Democracy,” “Civility,” “Freedom,” “Equality,” “Justice” and “The Rule of Law.”
As the slogans attracted negative comments online, people went to Brick Lane to paint comments critical of Beijing such as “Free Uighurs” and “Free Tibet.” There were references to the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
When Voice of America visited the site on Monday afternoon, only the word “Friendly” remained on the wall with the other sentiments covered up by slogans targeting the CCP.
It remains unclear if the people who painted the original slogans were being serious or ironic.
Wang Hanzheng, a Royal College of Art student who signs his art with name Yi Que, named the piece “East London's Socialist Core Values” and said the graphic slogans “did not carry a strong political message.”
“I wanted to see how the core values of socialism could bring a different impact to Brick Lane, which has long been symbolized and commercialized as a space of freedom. I wanted to explore a new way of commercialized artwork,” he said.
A point of contention was whether it was reasonable for Yi Que to cover multiple artworks at once with white paint, even though local graffiti artworks are usually replaced by others every few weeks.
Yi Que issued a statement on Monday afternoon, stating that he held “no political stance.”
He said the work aimed to provoke discussions and it showcased conflicts arising from two extreme views. He said he loved China, but he also has the right to reflect on the country through art.
He defended his work and said the group had consulted local graffiti artists before whitewashing the wall and that the artists did not mind their work being covered.
Yi Que also said he and his team were facing cyberbullying and death threats. His personal information and that of his parents had been put online.
“My parents are already quite old. I implore you not to do this. I am very concerned about their safety. Some of my social media accounts have been restricted, but at this moment, I cannot remain silent or back down. I really don't want to affect my family and friends. I am willing to bear all the doubts and consequences,” he said. “At the same time, I hope people from all walks of life and scholars can offer some assistance. I am in the midst of severe persecution,” he said.
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The whitewashed area of slogans covered a tribute to a popular street artist, Marty, painted by his fellow artist and friend, Benzi Brofman.
On Instagram, Brofman said painting over works like his was part of the street art culture.
Brofman told VOA Cantonese on Sunday that he was focused on creating new artwork and that Monday was also his birthday; thus, he would “prefer not to waste my time and energy on this issue.”
“My mind is set on my future art projects that will, hopefully bring joy and comfort to people,” he said.
In an interview with VOA Cantonese, Australia-based Chinese political cartoonist Badiucao called the graffiti “a crude piece of work.”
Regardless of whether Yi Que was trying to be patriotic or satirical, said Badiucao, the real cost was not borne by them, but the local street artists who have put in weeks or even months of effort for their work.
“Some may ask, isn't graffiti about free expression? Aren't all artworks eventually covered by new ones? Yes, indeed, street art is like a carousel, but street artists don't cover other artworks randomly,” he said. “Often, we choose to cover old works or ones that have been tagged as heavily damaged. For new works, especially those with commemorative significance, artists tend to choose to show respect.”
“Perhaps in the eyes of many, this act has caused a thousand waves and is therefore a success,” said Badiucao. “It gave almost everyone what they wanted – Yi Que gained massive fame through the spectacle, ‘little pinks’ patriots got the pride of their slogans being seen in the heart of London, dissenters got evidence exposing the Chinese Communist Party's threat to freedom of speech.
“However, after the carnival of chaos, it's the local artists who are forced to pay the price. They have involuntarily born the cost of this publicity stunt,” Badiucao said.