“Self-censorship is ubiquitous in China. It is even more damaging to free thinking and creativity than the official system of censorship is.”
Born Changzhou City, Jiangsu, 1971
Even if their work contains political messages, most Chinese artists avoid speaking openly about politics. The reasons are understandable: those who do so risk arbitrary arrest, trumped-up charges, beatings, and/or detention without trial. According to Wu Yuren, “Publicly discussing or calling for democracy, liberty and constitutionalism or protesting against corruption will make you a target of the secret police system. If you are lucky, you might be issued with a threat under the pretext of being invited to tea. If you are not so lucky, you might be illegally detained and even vanish into thin air.” He knows whereof he speaks. In 2010, after organising protests against the forcible eviction of artists from a Beijing studio district, he reported a related case of thuggery to local police, argued with them when they confiscated his cell phone, was beaten up, and spent the next 11 months in jail. After the charges against him were finally dropped, Wu Yuren used a variety of graphical symbol fonts to type the English sentence It is an adventure as living in China, and “published” the encrypted words in neon lights. The work’s title, A Sentence, alludes as much to his time in prison as to the statement itself. That the sentence is in code reflects the tendency of fearful citizens to speak in symbols rather than words. But that such blandly innocuous words should need to be so carefully hidden suggests that political protest in China is smothered by terror, any hints of it veiled beneath so many layers of metaphor and euphemism that they might as well not exist.