'China’s place in the world is that of a plagiariser — the intellectual equivalent of the faked designer bags you find in Beijing'
Authoritarianism is such an integral part of China’s political physiognomy that it seems almost too obvious to point it out, until you experience it first-hand. I have just had the opportunity to do so — to encounter censorship, pettiness and propaganda reminiscent of the Stasi while breathing the polluted air of Tiananmen Square — on a recent trip to Beijing.
The occasion couldn’t have been more impressive: three of the largest German museums collaborated to produce The Art of The Enlightenment, the biggest exhibition of their collections ever held outside Germany. Hundreds of European masterpieces, from Goya to Gainsborough, were on display in the world’s biggest museum, the newly reopened National Museum of China. Swarms of journalists had been flown in for the occasion. This massive show of superlatives was funded by the BMW group and the German Foreign Office.
Even before the opening, the endeavour had raised eyebrows: surely European Enlightenment and contemporary China don’t fit together all that well? In fact, the exhibition bombed before it opened. The fallout tells you a lot, both about German squeamishness and China’s notion of humanity, and how one played into the hands of the other. It paints a rather dismal picture of how the European values of the Enlightenment translate into contemporary politics.
There are so many serious abuses of human rights every day in China that it may seem ignorant to moan about spending a few days — mainly at lavish dinners — watched by stern Party officials who demand you carry your passport wherever you go. And yet this quiet atmosphere of control is where the real trouble begins. (The disappearance of the artist and regime critic Ai Weiwei while we were in China is a pertinent example.) This sense of unspoken menace was ubiquitous. While the German side played the worn-out diplomatic cards “dialogue” and “exchange of ideas”, the Chinese officials gave touchy subjects the silent treatment. When a journalist asked how this talk of individual freedom fitted with Chinese politics, the meeting was abruptly terminated.
What was in it for the Germans? The Enlightenment, though a European rather than a German affair, is one of the few exports to which every German can give wholehearted support. There is nothing out of date about Kant’s famous dictum: “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage.” The Age of Reason is the one epoch in their history that Germans can feel genuinely good about, before modernity took a sinister turn at their hands. Who could blame today’s Germans for wanting to cash in on their best period? The exhibition is generously funded by German companies willing to lap up the promise they sense in China, the only country in the world that’s simultaneously a communist state and a turbocapitalist empire.
This cultural dissonance translates into shrill clashes on the streets of Beijing: luxurious shopping malls reminiscent of the richest parts of America or Europe, old men puttering about on venerable mopeds. China likes to present itself as modern and forward-looking, the emphasis being on the next generation. This is particularly palpable in the education sector: many American and British universities have set up their own subsidiaries in China, often with Chinese partners, and to many young Europeans it seems a smart move to have spent a term or two in China. However, despite the fact that the public sphere may have opened up recently in the economic sense, China appears intellectually backward compared with its competitors, the democracies of the Far East. The message China sends out to the West remains, to say the least, unfortunate: blocked websites, unanswered questions, visas not granted. These may appear trivial inconveniences for outsiders when compared with the countless Chinese who are still killed or enslaved by the communist system, but they breed resentment and suspicion in the West too. China’s place in the world is that of a plagiariser rather than an innovator — the intellectual equivalent of the professionally faked designer bags you find in Beijing.
It is important not to forget that the battles Europeans fought in the 18th century to make way for modernity were not about stale ideas that can now be imported or exported at will. They are first and foremost an invitation to think freely. To contemplate Goya’s Disasters of War also means daring to question Mao’s genocidal legacy. One cannot toe the Party line while at the same time taking on board Kant’s injunction: “Dare to know!” Beijing cannot keep a billion Chinese in the dark and respect Goethe’s famous last words: “More light!”