If you’re an artist living in China, take some advice from the example of Dai Jianyong: don’t make potty jokes about the president.
According to AP, Jianyong posted Photoshopped pictures online showing President Xi Jinping with an exaggeratedly constipated expression. The artist dubbed it the “chrysanthemum face” in a hashtag — “chrysanthemum” being slang in China for anus.
Though Jianyong is a relatively obscure artist, the authorities took note. On May 26, while he was walking with his wife near their Shanghai home, 12 police officers arrested him for “creating a disturbance” online. If convicted, he could spend five years in prison.
Jianyong had posted similar photos of other people before, so at a glance, the Xi images don’t really seem that subversive — maybe just a little disrespectful. “It was just a playful thing he did,” said Judy Zhu, the artist’s wife. “I don’t think there was that much political intent behind it.”
But some online commentators saw in Xi’s doctored mustache an allusion to Adolf Hitler, even though it’s not exactly identical. That would align Jianyong with political activists who have taken to calling the president Xitele, a word that combines the two leaders’ names.
Whatever it was about Jianyong’s image that infuriated the Chinese officials censoring it, his story shows how difficult it is for contemporary Chinese artists to know what will or won’t send them to jail. That’s been especially the case under Xi, a hardliner who came to power in 2012.
“In general, the space for civil society to make their opinion public has become much harder under Xi Jinping, and that’s also true of artists,” Frances Eve, a researcher with Chinese Human Rights Defenders, told the AP. “The government’s always made it a little unclear, but people who used to work as artists felt like they hadn’t crossed the lines. Now, people have been detained and have crossed that line they didn’t know was there.”
Countless artists have been antagonized under Xi’s presidency, including Ai Wei Wei, Guo Jian, Chen Guang, the Gao Brothers and many more who supported last year’s Umbrella Revolution. In December, the government announced it would begin sending artists to live and work in rural areas, a policy that uncomfortably echoed Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
It seems that as long as the president is in power, artists who don’t want to end up in a dark prison cell should stick to the kind of fuzzy, feel-good art he likes best, as explained in a chilling speech last year:
“Fine art works should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles.”
In a 2011 article for Hyperallergic, An Xiao explained that memes in China can often have a subversive intent, like a “street art of the internet,” as they are harder to search and censure by the authorities. During the 2011 Beijing-Shanghai high speed railway train accident in Wenzhou, Chinese netizens made memes to respond to the incident. During the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre last year, many Chinese in China and abroad commemorated the event with various memes.