West Bund Museum (site of Pompidou Center), Shanghai (2020) (image by Lcsun, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lotus flowers, wild geese, mist-shrouded mountains and noble ladies playing golf in palace courtyards were among delights at the Victoria & Albert Museum when they mounted their magnificent show Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900 in 2013. Such riches were only possible thanks to precious loans from museums in China, a country with which the V&A has enjoyed a long, fruitful association. 

But now that friendship comes at a moral price. This week, a London tribunal found the Chinese state guilty of genocide. Chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the unofficial, independent assembly of lawyers, academics, and businesspeople concluded that up to a million Uyghurs have been incarcerated in camps in Xinjiang province. There, torture includes being forced into “tiger chairs” with limbs locked in position for days; confined in containers up to the neck in cold water and held in cages so small it’s impossible to lie or stand. Fingernails are ripped off during “interrogations.” Beatings are commonplace. 

The sexual violence is its own form of terror. Women are penetrated with electric shock rods and iron bars. They are raped by policemen in front of dozens forced to watch and in front of men who have paid for the privilege.  

Much of Xinjiang province, home to China’s 12.8 million Uyghurs, is an outdoor prison. As well as constant surveillance, atrocities include forced sterilizations and abortions, including of near-term babies. One obstetrician reported seeing new-born Uyghur babies murdered in hospital. Children have been torn from families and placed in state schools and orphanages. It’s no coincidence that 2019-20 birth rates among the Uyghur people have dropped by approximately 60%. 

None of this is a revelation. Reports of state-orchestrated terror against the Uyghur were circulating years before 2017 when the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region  (XUAR ) De-Extremification Regulation” was introduced as a regional policy to legitimize the detention. Since then, copious accounts, from human rights groups, eyewitnesses and survivors have testified that China is systematically suppressing the Uyghur. 

The Chinese government deny all claims. “The so-called witnesses the organizers have put together are merely actors who have been making up the so-called persecution that never happened at all,” said Zheng Zeguang, China’s ambassador to the UK, when he responded to the Uyghur Tribunal’s findings at a press conference this week.

The tribunal concluded that, though it found no evidence of “mass killing,” the accumulated efforts to destroy “a significant part of the Uyghurs” merit the “genocide” description. As such it concurs with parliaments including Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Belgium. It’s striking too that Jewish groups, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who wrote to the Chinese Ambassador to the UK in July 2020 comparing the treatment of the Uyghur with that of Jews in Nazi Germany, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum whose report on the situation, “To Make Us Slowly Disappear,” was published last month, have all spoken out in support of the Uyghur. 

The gravity and scale of the atrocities mean that foreign organizations working with Chinese state-run enterprises need to think long and hard about their presence. This particularly applies to museums who have a unique responsibility to safeguard free expression and celebrate rather than quash cultural diversity

Currently, international museums with links to state-run Chinese real estate developers include Tate, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Pompidou Center.

In 2019, Tate embarked on a three-year partnership with Shanghai Lujiazui Group to create the Pudong Museum of Art. In 2014, the V&A signed a five-year agreement with China Merchants Shekou Group to open Design Society, a cultural hub in Shenzhen which was inaugurated in 2017. (Renewal is under discussion after COVID-related closures saw an extension of the initial contract.) In 2019, the Pompidou Centre opened an outpost in Shanghai in collaboration with the West Bund group.

Sea World, (site of V&A Design Society) in Shekou, Shenzhen (2021) (image by Charlie Fong via Wikimedia Commons)

There are compelling reasons to venture eastwards. As certain museums argue, such exchanges do promote tolerance, empathy, and access to the art and culture on both sides. Writing to me over email, the Victoria & Albert Museum, for example, claimed that their work is “rooted in the belief that cultural exchange—particularly at museum-to-museum level—can be highly impactful as a means of generating greater understanding between global cultures and communities.”

But the museums are also reaping significant profits. According to the The Art Newspaper the V&A earned a net profit of at least £1.5 million in the first four years with China Merchants. West Bund paid the Pompidou €2.75 million per year. Tate have not disclosed financial details of their tie-up with Shanghai Lujiazui. 

It isn’t just state partnerships that are troubling. The British Museum, the V&A, the National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of New York have all signed deals with Alfilo Brands, the licensing and retail platform of Chinese tech giant Alibaba, to sell their merchandise to Chinese consumers. 

Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2008) (image by Junho Jung, via Wikimedia Commons)

In December 2020, it was revealed that Alibaba, through its cloud services division, had developed facial recognition software that specifically targeted Uyghur citizens. In a statement to the Ughyur Tribunal, US research firm IPVM, who specialize in surveillance technologies, quoted from an Alibaba Cloud API guide, which listed “Is [the face] Uyghur?” as one of several “face attributes” it could detect.

After IVPM’s report became public, Alibaba claimed to be “dismayed” by its own behavior and removed the “ethnic tag.” Nevertheless, the fact that the British Museum, for example, which purports to be run according to “enlightenment ideals and values,” found itself profiting from a company who made this kind of product speaks volumes about the precarity of the ethical tightrope museums are walking. 

There are plenty of arguments for maintaining the status quo. The world is rife with dastardly governments. Why pick on China? Just because you can’t fight every battle does not mean you shouldn’t fight any of them. China’s size is another deterrent. With a state that powerful, isn’t resistance futile? 

No, says, Yaqui Wang, a Senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese Communist party is using these prestigious alliances with global museums to validate its standing in the world and its ruling of China, including the horrendous human rights abuses,” she writes in an email exchange with me after the publication of the Uyghur Tribunal’s report. Wang, who believes it is time for international museums to pull out of China, calls on them to “leverage” their power by taking “a collective stand.”

Given that museums are supposed to be champions of free expression, it’s shocking that the sports sector is leading the call for change. The decision by the Women’s Tennis Association to suspend tournaments in China until they are satisfied that tennis player Peng Shuai is safe and well, along with a wave of support from sports stars including Serena Williams and Roger Federer, exists in striking contrast to museums’ silence not only on the treatment of the Uyghur, but also on the clampdown in Hong Kong which has included fierce artistic censorship.

The Uyghur Tribunal’s report is publicly accessible on the tribunal’s website. Yet so far none of the museums with Chinese deals have commented its findings. When I asked whether or not they had read it, neither the Pompidou Center nor Tate responded to the question, although Tate did observe that the agreement with the Lujiazui Group was made “with the oversight and approval of our Trustees” and that “as a public institution, we work with the backing of the UK Government.”

A view of Tate Modern in London from the River Thames (2008) (image by MasterOfHisOwnDomain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The V&A, however, did confirm that the report is currently “with staff and is being reviewed.” If they can read the details of the atrocities being committed in Xinjiang and remain convinced that an alliance with China is the best way forward for their institution, then maybe it is time for their audience to pay attention to the conclusion reached by Sir Geoffrey Nice. Lamenting the lack of an international court investigation into China’s treatment of the Uyghur, he calls on the wider public to exercise “choices of how and where to deploy influence, and of how to spend money and time, of where to study and with whom.”

In recent years, we have seen artists and activists mount dynamic and effective protests against museums’ tie-ups with “toxic philanthropists” including fossil-fuel industries, opioid manufacturers and tear gas makers. Surely it is time to include the Chinese government in the list of those with whom it is unethical to do business?

It’s understandable that, in an era devastated by COVID-enforced closures, museums feel they need every penny they can get. But if the cost of mounting beautiful exhibitions and creating rich cross-cultural dialogues is complicity with a genocidal state, that cost is too high.  

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Rachel Spence

Rachel Spence is an arts writer and poet. Her journalism appears regularly in the Financial Times. She has published three volumes of poetry, most recently Call...