SHAFAQNA – AS THE people of Xi’an file through the subway and along underpasses, rush past bus stops and buildings, they pass hundreds of posters. Some of these advertise the newest smartphone or fancy car, but many tout less marketable commodities: the importance of thrift, diligence, filial devotion, Chinese civilisation and the virtues of the ruling party. “The Communist Party is good, the people are happy” reads one, over an image of a couple bouncing their single child.
During the party’s rule, propaganda art has always been a feature of the urban landscape. But in recent years it has been relegated to the margins by the onslaught of commercial advertising. President Xi Jinping has been trying to revive it. Propaganda posters are now everywhere: on fences around construction sites, billboards and walls. The party is waging a low-tech, old-fashioned campaign to sell itself. At the same time it is tightening its grip on creative endeavours that do not have the party’s welfare in mind. Art for the sake of politics is back in vogue.
Art has a long political history in China. It was deployed by all sides in the revolutionary campaigns of the 20th century to fight for hearts and minds. In the 1920s the Communists used the arts to communicate their ideas to a largely illiterate population. In 1942, at Yan’an in northern China, Mao Zedong—then a guerrilla leader—famously called for all art to reflect the life of the working class and serve socialism.
Art and the party were aligned for the next 40 years. Art for art’s sake ceased to exist. Artists had little choice but to produce propaganda. Mao-era posters were often striking with their muscular steelworkers and relentlessly cheerful peasants. They provided a rare spot of colour in otherwise grey lives; many people decorated their walls with such images (unintentionally, the paper also proved useful as insulation).
The alliance between art and the party weakened almost as soon as commercial advertising started again in 1979. The party ceded its monopoly over public messages. Artists could earn more, and enjoy greater freedom and public standing in pursuit of goals other than political ones. The party’s message, meanwhile, became more nuanced. Deng Xiaoping’s “opening up and reform” did not lend itself to compelling imagery. Jiang Zemin, who took over as China’s leader in the early 1990s, summed up his political theory as the “three represents” in which the party represents China’s productive forces, advanced culture and the interests of its people. That was also tricky to depict visually.
The new posters appeal to a sense of pride in traditional Chinese culture and a common desire to make China strong again. Since taking office in 2012 Mr Xi has tried to tap into these sentiments by speaking of a “Chinese dream” and the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. The arts play a central role: schools run essay-writing contests to promote the dream; there is a nationwide photography competition to capture “My Chinese dream”; there are songs about it, too.
Posters are the most visible tool in Mr Xi’s campaign. Many praise the country or the party. (“Without the Communist party there would be no new China” sing three Chinese dolls in one poster.) Others promote moral values (a peasant girl with bows in her hair accompanies the platitude: “Everyone contributes a little love”). A handful call on people to protect the environment (a simple pen and ink drawing of a bicycle illustrates the wishful message: “Drive less, cycle more”). A ubiquitous one (pictured above) features an apple-cheeked girl and the words: “The Chinese dream is my dream”.
More than any leader since Mao, Mr Xi has embarked on a charm offensive to court public opinion. But he also wants to strengthen the party’s hold. By bombarding people with images, the party is trying to recover some of the psychological power it once enjoyed under Mao. The abundance of the posters and the uniformity of their style sends a message: the party is all-pervasive. In October, echoing Mao’s address in Yan’an, Mr Xi called on artists to promote socialism rather than be “slaves” to the market or chase popularity with “vulgar” works. This month the media regulator said artists, film-makers and television personalities should spend time in rural areas to “form a correct view of art”.
The imagery in the posters reflects Mr Xi’s artistic taste—nothing too adventurous. Many of them use works by an artist, Feng Zikai, who was popular during the party’s infancy in the 1920s and 1930s (he was criticised during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and died in 1975). They hark back to a traditional China with red lanterns and zodiac symbols.
By contrast, some of China’s living artists are feeling the squeeze of the state. Since the 1980s they have emerged from underground and have become part of the global contemporary-art scene. Constraints have remained on those who defy political taboos—Ai Weiwei, China’s best-known artist and an outspoken dissident, has not had his passport returned since it was confiscated more than three years ago. But the government is more suspicious of creative types than its immediate predecessor was. The annual Beijing Independent Film Festival was shut down in August, as were two others in 2013. Several artists who posted comments on social media about the recent protests in Hong Kong (see article) were arrested. The authorities are more vigorously enforcing rules that foreign artworks entering China must be vetted by the Ministry of Culture.
The government is wary of contemporary artists because their work reflects how people feel about society now, says Zhang Haitao, a curator and art critic in Beijing. It clearly irks Mr Xi that their vision of China’s future, their “Chinese dream”, is not always the same as his.