This Week in Photography: Understanding China

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

Consider yourself warned.

We’re going deep today.

I’m writing on Thanksgiving, you’re reading on Black Friday, and these are highly-loaded days in America.

In their honor, today, we’re doing a proper examination of these perilous, political times in the United States and China, Earth’s dueling super-powers.

For my American analysis, you already know I’ve got the goods, as I’ve been spewing on about American politics since Rob gave me this platform. (Or, more accurately, since Thanksgiving 2011.)

With respect to China, I’ve got a BA in History from Duke, I studied Chinese art history at the undergrad and graduate levels, taught elements of its art history at the college level, watched more Hong Kong action films than I could ever count, learned bits about Buddhism, and studied Chinese martial arts as well.

(Tai Chi, Kung Fu, and I’m familiar with Qi Gong.)

Finally, on the subject of my Chinese street cred, I wrote an article here in 2011, after artist Ai Weiwei was unjustly kidnapped and imprisoned by the Chinese government, that was highly critical of China’s rulers.

(I called them assholes.)

After we published, I battled Chinese government trolls in the comment section for a few hours, which Rob and I still talk about. (And we wondered, will they return today?)

This time, though, I’m going to sit down in the nuance.

This will NOT be a story in which I only call the Chinese government to task, condescending in my moral superiority, confident I know better.

Not today.

Rather, we’re going to look at the bigger picture.

Because China in #2019 is as impossible to ignore, (and as good at generating headlines,) as Donald J. Trump.

And that’s saying something!

In preparation for this article, I read almost everything I could the last two weeks, and encountered some excellent journalism in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and this amazing piece by the ICIJ that focuses on the second major leak coming out of China in the past month.

But even more impressive, (I think,) is that we’re also going to offer you some actual, unpublished, hot-off-the-presses documentary photography, straight from the front lines in Hong Kong, which has been roiled by massive protests this year.

My Antidote student, Hillary Johnson, has strong ties to the martial arts community in Hong Kong, and has spent a significant amount of time there over many years.

She recently put together a small Go Fund me campaign to raise money to get to Hong Kong to document the protest movement, and just got back.

These photographs are current, is what I’m saying.

And she both knows the city, and has deep ties there.

The Hong Kong protests are only part of what I want to discuss, but it’s exciting to be able to share Hillary’s work while it’s all happening.

Photo from the 7th floor of the Eaton Hotel that sits right at the intersection where the battle took place at Nathan Rd and Gascoigne Rd. Flowing in and out of the intersection like a murmuration of birds, throughout the day and night of fighting with the police, the protesters worked together tirelessly and with great courage to keep the police at bay. It seemed clear they had studied military history and tactics, particularly Roman battle techniques. They made a phalanx at the barrier and inched towards the police under cover of umbrellas which protected them from the tear gas. They were finally driven out by police around 3 or 4 am.

On November 18th protesters used anything they could find to make barricades during the battle that went on for more than 24 hours at Nathan Rd and Gascoigne Rd. They pulled bricks from sidewalks and broke them in half, bamboo from scaffolding, street signs, anything they could get their hands on was immediately transformed into a weapon, shield or barrier. The sound of things being dismantled was a relentless, unearthly tapping of brick against brick, metal against metal.

 

Part 2. Understanding China

 

When I wrote the Ai Weiwei article, I rememberer mentioning the movie “Hero,” and how it had chilled me to hear the phrase “Our Land,” and then see Jet Li’s character (spoiler alert) give up his life to allow an Emperor to rule a united China.

I thought it meant they were coming for us, (which they kind of are, but more on that later,) but in the ensuing years, I’ve come to see the film differently.

What I now know of Chinese history is that, as long as it is, the periods of Chinese unity led to prosperity and relative peace.

But when smaller powers were jostling within, in a country as big as China, with a historically huge population, wars broke out, and tens of millions of people died.

(This happened a lot.)

In the late 19th Century, most recently, the Taiping Rebellion killed an estimated 60-70 million people.

And that was an uprising against the Qing Dynasty, a weak power that conquered “China” from Manchuria, in the Far North.

There was also the time when the Mongols defeated China and ruled in the Southern Song Dynasty, in the 13th Century.

The pride of the dominant Han was damaged then too.

Fast forward again, and China in the Qing Dynasty was so underpowered that England carved it up, during the Opium wars, imposing the drug on the country, and taking territory, like Hong Kong.

When the Qing Dynasty finally collapsed, just before World War I, the Japanese came in as conquerors, and from then though World War II, (featuring things like the Rape of Nanjing,) China was humiliated by a neighbor, and again millions of people died.

Next, there was the violence during the Communist Revolution, when Mao Zedong took over, which led to the partition of China and Taiwan. (Which China does not recognize.)

And millions more starved when Mao did as he pleased with the Centralized economy.

(Even in a united China, under Mao, lots of people died, back in the day.)

So here we are in #2019, and China is now united, but with the resources of a mega-power, due to its embrace of Western Capitalism.

The leadership under the unapologetic dictatorship, (more on that later,) consistently stresses the value of a united, powerful China, and its citizens, many of whom have left poverty for the middle class, (or outright wealth,) appreciate the stability.

Xi Jinping, China’s power-hungry ruler, stepped in at this time of unprecedented prosperity, and decided China was ready to embrace its role as a Superpower, rather than cloak it, as had been the case since Deng Xiaoping.

So now Xi has an axe to grind with the Europeans, the Japanese, and the Americans.

(Russia, with whom it shares a border, is a natural rival as well, but certainly they have things in common too.)

Xi also lived through watching his father get taken down, and reeducated, so he has a chip on his shoulder there as well.

Given all I’ve written so far, are we really surprised that a guy who had the rules re-written so he can be dictator-for-life would claim some rocks in the South China Sea, engage in a huge trade war with a super-power, lock up and torture 1 million Muslim minorities in concentration camps, or try to take Hong Kong’s (partial) democracy in plain view of the world?

 

Part 3: The War on Terror

 

After 9/11, the United States of America started two ground wars, one in Afghanistan, and the other in Iraq.

(One is still ongoing, and the other wrapped up under President Obama, but we sent troops back in country this Fall.)

After the attacks that killed 2000+ Americans, and cost untold billions, travel in airports changed forever. Privacy laws changed, (remember the Patriot Act?,) and though George W. Bush admirably argued against it, Anti-Muslim sentiment in this country increased.

Overall, the US spent TRILLIONS of dollars on those Middle-Eastern wars, killed tens of thousands of people, and locked some up indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay too.

Today, in #2019, we are currently running our own detention (or concentration) camps for illegal immigrants, depending on your preferred term.

Children get sexually abused there, or taken from their parents forever.

They sleep on cold concrete floors, and are denied hygiene and occasionally health care.

(The US Government actually defended the lack of hygiene in a video clip that went viral.)

We also incarcerate millions of Americans for a drug war that is destroying our neighbor, Mexico, and a massive percentage of our overcrowded prison population is comprised of people of color.

Plus, our police, (at least in Dallas,) now shoot African-American people in their homes, while they’re playing video games, or eating ice cream.

You really can’t make this shit up, but doesn’t make it any less tragic.

Honestly, the only thing I like about Vladimir Putin is that he’s always calling us out for our hypocrisy.

We’ve taken territory.
We’ve removed governments.
We’ve meddled in elections.

On this, he’s not wrong.

Can we really look at what China is doing with the (mostly) Uighur population in Xinjiang and say we’re that much better than they are at the moment?

The Uighurs were killing Han Chinese, in terrorist attacks in 2009 and 2014, and then Xi Jinping said make it stop.

He said, use the power of the Dictatorship to make it stop.

And so they did.

They built camps from scratch, increased facial recognition surveillance, locked up 1 million people, torturing them, threatening their free relatives to stay quiet, and went about brainwashing the Islam and Uighur out of them.

All since 2017!!!

And again, I ask, in this age of Trump, with our camps, and our history of locking up the Japanese in World War II, slavery, and the genocide of Native America, are we so sure we’re superior? .

We did lots of torture in those CIA black sites during the War on Terror, in addition to waterboarding, sound and light torture, sleep deprivation, and many other goodies.

No wonder we’re all getting headaches from the complexity of #2019.

 

Part 4: Defending Democracy

 

I take my freedom of speech very seriously. (As you know.)

I’m thankful to Rob Haggart, my amazing editor, for supporting those rights for the last 9.5 years, and for paying me to share my opinion with you.

He has never censored or edited me, in all these years.

Not once.

And when I suggested this column, he said go for it!

Because I’ve been thinking a lot about China’s threat to our free speech lately.

As Xi flexes his muscles, (and all these countries become interdependent,) like with anything else, might makes right.¬†It’s why Pakistan and other Muslim countries stay silent as China jails and tortures other Muslims in Xinjiang.

They’re addicted to Chinese money, and the customer, (and boss) is always right.

So I was immediately concerned the second I read that China had come down so hard on Houston Rockets GM Darryl Morey’s Pro-Hong-Kong-protestor tweet back in October.

Mr. Morey had only retweeted a generic message of support from his personal account, and it literally turned into an international incident overnight.

I cannot overstate how big a deal it became, both to China, the NBA, and US-Chinese relations.

Joe Tsai, an Alibaba founder, and new owner of my beloved Brooklyn Nets, wrote a long, open letter on Facebook echoing some of the history I mentioned in Part 1, and calling the protestors separatists. (Ironically, he’s Taiwanese, and was educated in the US.)

Chinese power has come into America, and apparently pressed for Mr. Morey to be fired.

Several times in the aftermath, China made clear in writing that it believes free speech does NOT include criticizing its government, and that it also now feels that practice should not be limited within its national borders.

People outside China, workers within the American Capitalist system, should have their freedom of expression limited, says the People’s Republic of China.

If you’re not a little concerned by that, I think you should be.

And I told all of that to Hillary Johnson, my intrepid student, before she left to support the Hong Kong democracy movement this month.

I told her Xi Jinping was willing to do anything to win.

That these protestors did not stand a chance.

That it would be dangerous.

She said she knew all these things, and was determined to go anyway. She wanted to be there with David, against Goliath.

I told her I admired the hell out of her bravery, and that I’d support her as I could.

The photographs Hillary made, over the course of a week+ in Hong Kong in November 2019, are her vision of a community she, (and I) desperately appreciate. (Or a part of her vision. She had hardrive drama, so this is only a small sample of what she shot.)

China came along earlier this year, and wanted to expand its power to extradite anyone from Hong Kong to the mainland judicial system.

Hong Kong’s citizens, especially the young, realized this was not a power-grab, but a complete takeover.

If it had succeeded, if Carrie Lam, (the puppet) had gotten her way, then any freedom would have evaporated.

You say the wrong thing, and you can all-of-a-sudden end up locked up forever in a Chinese political prison.

It would be the same implicit threat hanging over folks in Beijing, Shanghai, or Shenzhen. (Because the mainland Chinese made a devil’s bargain, of wealth and security for human rights and freedom.)

Here in the United States, we have, for most of our history, preferenced the latter at all costs.

Do we still?

Trump wants to be President for life.

He jokes about it all the time.

The dictators Putin, Xi, and Erdogan are his friends.

And now he’s about to face an impeachment trial, with an election coming up next year.

Where does it all end?

I have no idea.

But the Hong Kong protestors forced China to back down on the extradition law, and just supported the pro-democracy movement in local elections.

What happens next?

Again, I have no idea.

Happy Black Friday!

A nurse who must remain anonymous, photographed on November 18th during a battle between protesters and police for the intersection of Nathan Rd and Gascoigne Rd in the Jordan neighborhood in Kowloon, Hong Kong SAR. She volunteered to care for protesters overcome by teargas or suffering from other injuries. The police shot a mix of tear gas canisters, rubber bullets as well as live rounds directly at protesters.

The mother of the young protester who both must remain anonymous pose for a portrait holding a copy of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy magazine. This page features a heroic painting of the protesters by @harcourtromanticist. They are a rare example of a family stronger together now than before. Many parents have disowned their children for being involved in the protests.

Anonymous young woman. She is a college student and her boyfriend is a front line protester. She said, “I am not as brave as him but I want to help so I am learning first aid, so I can help them when they go to the front line.” She was inside the Prince Edward MTR station when the police locked the station down, trapping riders and innocent people for over an hour while triad thugs, dressed in all black so they could look like protesters, came in and beat ordinary people, (who were not protesters,) indiscriminately with blunt instruments and batons.

A family of a front line protester. He is just 21 and lives with his mother and grandmother. His mother worked at Police headquarters for 11 years. In the beginning of the movement, she and her mother didn’t believe the stories about police brutality and were against the son protesting. It almost split the family apart. They finally came to see the stories were true and though she worries about him every time he goes out she supports the movement and feels that in her job she can keep an eye on things and know what is really going on.

This woman so fears the police that this is the only we she could be photographed for publication. Because of her work, so many people know her, some of them police, it was completely unsafe to show her face or photograph her any recognizable place that could be identified. Her husband could not be photographed at all for fear of reprisals.

These three gentlemen are part of a confederation of labor unions representing different industries. The two wearing masks have been deeply involved in the movement. To show their faces would put them at risk of arrest and imprisonment. Thousands of people have already been arrested and there are reports of intense police brutality including beatings, arrest and rape. Of the election, one from the Cross Sector Resistance said, “It showed that the people will not submit to pandering or terrorism, but recognize that human rights are non-negotiable.”

This man is an organizer and labor leader in Hong Kong. He said, “The Chinese government has already seen my face, so I’m already dead! Let’s do one photo facing away from the camera anyway.” The five raised fingers stands for 5 demands and not one less. He sees labor issues as being inextricably tied to fundamental concepts of freedoms embodied in the five demands and the pro-democracy movement.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 1 Comment On This Article.

  1. At a time where I am deeply saddened by what is going on in the USA, this article, as hurtful as it is to the soul, make me appreciate the freedoms and elbow room we have. It is always worse somewhere else and the people of Hong Kong and China are in my thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *