Turning the Rubble of China’s Mass Evictions into Protest Art
BEIJING — When the authorities demolished tens of thousands of homes occupied by migrant workers in Beijing last year, turning entire city blocks into flattened wasteland, the artist Yang Qian went to work.
Mr. Yang scavenged through piles of rubble, recovering hundreds of objects, including stuffed animals, broken glasses and scarlet-red children’s shoes. He sealed the objects in crystal columns to display at a Beijing art gallery, hoping to convey the idea that wealthier people treat the migrants, who come from poor rural areas in search of work, like garbage.
“As a socialist country you cannot divide people,” Mr. Yang said. “Every class in China should have the same rights.”
The heavy-handed efforts this winter by Beijing to drive out the migrants and their families have drawn international criticism. Officials view the crowded, slum-like neighborhoods as fire hazards and eyesores, despite the fact that the migrants do the menial jobs that allow a city like Beijing to function.
The forced demolitions have also inspired an outpouring of protest art in the form of paintings, photographs, songs and poetry, an unusual show of dissent in a country that routinely censors messages running counter to President Xi Jinping’s portrayal of an egalitarian society.
Musicians are performing rap songs that take aim at overzealous bureaucrats. Poets are condemning apathy and inequality in society. Painters are using scenes of devastation to denounce the harsh treatment of struggling families.
Migrants have created some of the works themselves, looking for ways in China’s carefully monitored society to express their discontent.
The emergence of migrant art in galleries, community centers and social media has been embraced by displaced workers as a way of dealing with trauma. It has also caught the attention of the authorities, who have censored some of the works.
At a recent art show in Shenzhen, a southern city, the authorities removed an image of a spotlight shining on a lone home in a construction site before it was destroyed.
Jiang Zhi, the artist who produced the image, which has been interpreted as a criticism of the lack of property rights in China, said evicted families should be treated more humanely. He said he had displayed similar photos without issue for more than a decade and was puzzled that it would be considered controversial.
“Will the image of a bouquet of flowers, a gesture, a certain kind of smile, an umbrella, a hat and so on suddenly become forbidden?” he said. “Does this not stem from a bizarre and ridiculous sort of fear?”
The image was later restored.
In Beijing, a painter, Hua Yong, was briefly detained this winter after he posted dozens of videos online documenting the destruction and his conversations with aggrieved families. Mr. Hua’s posts were later deleted on Chinese sites.
Mr. Hua said censorship was impossible to avoid. “The duty of artists is first to record and second, to ruminate,” he said in an interview. “I hope I can wake up more people.”
Mr. Xi’s government seems especially sensitive to art that uses the phrase “di duan ren kou,” or “low-end population,” a derisive reference to migrants that is used by some officials. The phrase has become a rallying cry for critics of the government’s mass expulsions, though censors now block it on the Chinese internet.
A poem by Yu Xiuhua, who has been called China’s Emily Dickinson, spoke bluntly about divisions in society and the plight of the “low-end population”:
Leave the sunshine to the high-end population,
Let’s go my child, go with the Beijing wind,
Leave the sunshine to the future. Leave it with the high-end to praise,
Leave the happiness to the future. Leave it with the high-end to enjoy.
The poem was quickly deleted from social media sites. But that did not stop migrant workers from reciting it at protests and other gatherings this winter, as the rate of evictions in Beijing intensified.
Ms. Yu declined to comment, saying the authorities had prohibited her from speaking out.
Many artists have been forced to find creative ways to evade censorship. At Mr. Yang’s exhibition, titled “A Gust of Wind Through Beijing,” the word “underclass” is written in English. A painting of a devastated area of Beijing includes a mishmash of nearly illegible Chinese characters that spell out “low-end population.” A crooked ladder built with abandoned steel symbolizes the unfulfilled dreams of rural families living in big cities.
Many artists said they had been moved by images they had seen in the news media of hordes of people in Beijing being forced to the streets in the middle of winter. Others were more directly affected, having lived or worked in neighborhoods that were torn down.
Hu Yan, a graphic artist in Beijing whose work often grapples with the loss of history and culture brought on by urbanization, said the demolitions were a tragedy that had inspired many artists to speak out. She and a collaborator, Li Han, are working on a graphic novel about evicted families.
“When people are being thrown from their homes and losing their jobs or whatever, it makes you feel you don’t have this kind of security in your lives either,” she said. “People wonder, what will happen next? Will something similar happen to me?”
The evictions have also inspired some of the migrants themselves to write poems, novels and songs to document their experiences.
Xiao Feng, a songwriter who left Beijing last year, said that sharing art had helped many people forced from their homes grapple with feelings of depression. He wrote a song to protest the evictions. “Looking up at the gray sky,” one part reads, “under which piece of cloud is there a piece of rainbow?”
Mr. Xiao, who now lives in the southern city of Guangzhou, said he still felt sad listening to the song and remembering his experience. “The development of Beijing couldn’t have been achieved without people at the bottom of the society,” he said. “It’s ruthless to drive away people who worked for it.”
In Picun, a migrant neighborhood in northern Beijing that offers workshops for budding poets and writers, workers gathered in a community center to share poems and music about the struggles of realizing their dreams in Beijing.
Some have commented on the stark divisions in Chinese society, asking why the government is pushing out a class of people who keep the city running, by cleaning homes, picking up trash and caring for babies.
One worker, Wang Bo, wrote a poem about evictions titled, “Sweet Homes”:
In this cold, dark night, in this cold dark night, do I still have the courage to sing?
In this cold, dark night, in this cold dark night, can I still remember why I sing?
In the coming spring, will the wild lilies still bloom?
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