Jiang Zemin (1926 – 2022)

Jiang Zemin, a president and a meme, died this week, aged 96.

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On “60 Minutes” in 2000, he was asked whether he was running China as a ‘developmental dictatorship’. Jiang Zemin was defiant. “Of course not,” he answered, capping an interview where he quoted from the Gettysburg address.

He was colorful, even eccentric, compared to grey apparatchiks who made up the Chinese Communist Party. A showman (playing public games of ping pong, showing off his Hawaiian guitar skills, crooning the Chinese community of L.A. with a selection from “Beijing Opera”), a boor (combing his hair in front of the Spanish king [above], publicly berating Hong Kong journalists with his thickly-accented English, applauding enthusiastically at his own portrait during a Communist Party parade), a charmer. He gave bear hug to a stunned President Yeltsin at a press conference in Beijing as their countries settled their border issues. He sang a karaoke version of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” at the Asia-Pacific summit in 1996 with Fidel Ramos of the Philippines [below], and often broke out into “O Sole Mio” at banquets (once with Pavarotti). He asked Condoleezza Rice to dance with him, and at another press conference, this time with Bill Clinton, there was much debate and light-hearted banter – a turn of events which would be quite unimaginable nowadays.

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He had to be a charmer, as he travelled far and wide to build support for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. That same visit to America had included a stop at Harvard where he joked that even at his age (71), his hearing is still sharp enough to hear the demonstrators outside, and that he would simply have to speak louder. He also appeared to have admitted a certain responsibility for the Tiananmen massacre:  “It goes without saying that, naturally, we may have shortcomings and even make some mistakes in our work.”

Those were the days. No Chinese leader before or since had been or would ever be that candid, that ingratiating again. But Jiang had made a career out of being agreeable: first as one of the “flower-vases” – a term for low-level technocrats who were all decoration, no action; then as an unassuming and peripheral Politburo member; and finally as a compromise candidate between the warring hardliners and reformists in the wake of Tiananmen, and an agreeable front man for the grey eminence of Deng Xiaoping. 

His rule domestically was a time of quiescence bliss – but not for the Tibetans or Falun Gong supporters that he persecuted, nor for state-owned employees who lost their jobs as China privatized – but Jiang encapsulated China’s peaceful rise in many ways. He stood for a time where it seemed possible that China could still be a normal pluralistic society. His 1997 Politburo standing committee was the first time in Chinese history that the state had not had a soldier at the core of its power (perhaps first time since the days of Dowager Empress Cixi) and his retirement, albeit protracted, was the only time in the Chinese Communist Party’s history that a peaceful handover of power took place.

After his retirement, Jiang’s images have become gifs and emojis on Chinese social media. It was with a mixture of affection and hilarity that he was often portrayed him as a toad, alluding to his wide mouth, portly physique, square spectacles, and often high-waisted trousers. The unlikely new fans who came of age and prosperity during Jiang’s presidency called themselves “toad-worshippers”.

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Most memorable images of Jiang were of his public swims: at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii with black googles and a pinkish-purple swimhat, and floating languidly on the Dead Sea during a state visit to Israel – first by a Chinese president.  Rumors about his health had persisted throughout his presidency – at Hong Kong handover in 1997, Jiang looked unhealthy leading to rumors that he had suffered a heart attack. These swims were his attempts to prove otherwise, but they were unfavourably compared with Mao’s Great Swim across the Yangzi. No Chinese leader since had conducted such performative acts of athleticism, even though the elite still trundle down annually for a leadership conference at Beidaihe, a beach resort on the Bohai Sea where Mao loved to swim. (Despite Chairman Xi’s assertion to the Washington Post that, “I like sports, and swimming is my favorite,” there’s no photo of his swimming).  

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If you like what I do and what I write, or simply wants me to write more, you can support me via Patreon. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining. Proceeds mainly go to buying photography reference books. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request topics or to participate in some polls.

Thanks for your continued support!  Here is the link:

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Henri Cartier-Bresson | Shanghai, Jan 1949

On the day the Japanese Army surrendered in September 1945, the wars in Asia were far from over. As Ronald Spector notes in a recent book, “A Continent Erupts,” the peoples under the territories until recent occupied by Japan had vastly different visions about their postcolonial future which led to savage and bitter conflicts.

Nowhere was this brutal conflict more pronounced than in China were 2.5 million combatants and 16 million civilians were to perish between 1945 and 1949. The World War in Asia had practically began in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and it has dragged on as the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek cut secret deals with the defeated Japanese commanders in 1945-46 to engage some Japanese troops against the Communists.  

The Nationalists nominally still controlled the cities, but the power was slowly slipping away from them. Economy, after seventeen years of war, was in a nosedive and in order to keep funding the war (now without major support from the Western Allies), the Nationalists began printing paper money in vast quantities. Technically, they were backed by gold, but amount of Chinese fabi in circulation grew from 189 billion to 4.5 trillion by 1946.

The government tried to intervene – firstly by introducing a new currency, gold yuan and then eventually by trying to return China to silver standard – but nothing would work. In a typical dictatorial fashion, the government mandated all Chinese holding gold, silver, or foreign currency were required to surrender such assets in return for “gold yuan,” under penalty of death. Chiang appointed his own son in charge of these measures who led a reign of terror, sending trucks from house to house to confiscate the assets.  In mid-1948, currency was trading at one million yuans to a US dollar. By February 1949, it was six million yuans to a dollar. Paper factories in Kwangtung found it more cost effective to pulp hundred yuan bills to making new paper.

By now, the end was drawing near. Starting in December 1948, the government had been shipping out the nation’s gold reserves to Taiwan, knowing that the Communists would soon over run the major cities. In December, 2 million taels of gold (~75 tons), nearly half of the government’s gold, carried out of the central bank in the traditional manner – by coolies, parceled up on bamboo poles – down the gangplank onto a freighter bound for Keelung in northern Taiwan.  

This action, observed by George Vine, a British journalist looking out of his fifth-floor office window one night, would prompt a nationwide bank run. That was the situation when Henri Cartier-Bresson arrived in Shanghai in January 1949. Outside four government banks on the old Bund, a vast crowd teemed. In order to prove that there was still gold in the vaults, the government started selling gold from the reserves at around half the price what the black marketers were charging. Each person was limited to forty grams of gold, and thousands had been waiting in line since eight pm the previous night, ignoring the eleven pm curfew. The police made only a token gesture toward maintaining order, resulting in ten deaths by suffocation or by being trampled, by five pm the following day.

The government gave up this scheme quickly.  Meanwhile, they were shipping off gold — another 14 tons of gold was being moved out of Bank of China’s vaults under the Bund just as Cartier-Bresson was documenting the chaos above. The gold and silver was escorted down to Taiwan by Mei Ching, a ship which would later defected to the Communists, highlighting the risks involved in such a transfer.

By the time Shanghai fell to the Communists, almost 100 tons of gold reserves were safely in Taiwan already.

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If you like what I do and what I write, or simply wants me to write more, you can support me via Patreon. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining. Proceeds mainly go to buying photography reference books. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request topics or to participate in some polls.

Thanks for your continued support!  Here is the link:

https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos

Hu Jintao is Removed

Kremlinology, they used to call it. Analysis of an opaque obscurantist state, using indirect clues: the removal of portraits, the rearranging of chairs, the standing positions and precedence on the parade podium on the Red Square. Even the choice of capitalization (“First Secretary”) and syntax in paper newspapers. In one of its most famous examples, Stalin looks increasingly lonely, as his comrades were airbrushed out of photographs — and past is entirely rewritten by an ahistorical regime.

This week, that absurdist spectacle was once again back to the forefront at 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. As the meeting apotheoses Xi Jingping and granted him an unprecedented third term as leader of China, his predecessor was escorted out of the meeting room, seemingly forcibly.

The fact that Hu Jintao, President of China from 2003 to 2013 and Mr. Xi’s predecessor, was taken away as foreign correspondents were ushered in and that there was a lack of one uncut video of the event fueled much speculation. Mr. Hu did appear, yet at several times during the video, he displayed feistiness and reluctance to depart — rendering Communist Party’s official line that he was taken ill doubtful.

We have two video clips of the moment. Firstly, the one from Channel News Asia:

The clip begins with Li Zhanshu, the Speaker of the National People’s Congress (and the third highest ranking member of the Politburo), taking away a piece of white paper from Mr. Hu. Mr. Li chats with the former president, puts the paper under the red folder and hands the folder back to Mr. Hu. Only seconds later (17 sec mark in video), Mr. Li takes away the folder from Mr. Hu, almost in panic. In the background, an usher is summoned to Xi.

There seems to be a lengthy conversation between Mr. Hu and Mr. Li. Finally at 56 secs mark, the usher returns, and Mr. Xi gives the usher a long set of instructions, pointing to (possibly) an agenda in front of him. Mr. Hu listens in on the conversation, his expression neutral yet concerned. Then then usher tries to show Mr. Hu something on his white piece of paper, but is prevented by Mr. Li, who once again hides it under the red folder.

Throughout this, Mr. Hu doesn’t not appear to look frail or ill.

There’s a cut to CNA’s video at this mark, so let’s move to AFP video. Please note that before the cut, there’s Mr. Hu’s signature glasses on the table, but as AFP video begins, the usher has already picked them up already. So we don’t know how long the missing footage is.

AFP video begins with usher holding Mr. Hu’s arm and the former president resisting, once again, not looking ill. The usher tries lifting him up, and 9 secs mark, Mr. Hu tries to reach for Xi’s red folder. This action hints that there might be different things printed on two presidents’ white pieces of paper, and Mr. Hu, upon realizing that, is trying to bring attention to it. Xi resists, the usher strongarms Mr. Hu, and Mr. Li hands over Mr. Hu’s red folder to the usher.

In the background approaches, Kong Shaoxun, a deputy director considered to be close to Chairman Xi.

Now, Mr. Hu is starting to look a bit discombobulated.

(From 23 secs onwards, AFP video overlaps with CNA (at 1:26 secs mark), so we can see from two angles).

At 33 secs mark, the usher almost forcibly takes Mr. Hu out of his chair. Mr. Hu nearly slips but turns to return to his seat. At 56 secs mark, Mr. Li tries to help the former president, but is dissuaded by Wang Huning on his left, the fourth highest ranking member of the Politburo, who’s often known as China’s ‘Grey Eminence’. Mr. Hu makes another attempt to take the folder and the white piece of paper back, but the usher isn’t showing it to him. Mr. Hu makes an indigant shrug of his hand, looking anything but ill.

On his way out, he exchanges brief words with Xi and patted Premier Li Keqiang, a protegee who belongs to his wing of the party, on the shoulder. As he was led away, other party grandees, including his former Premier, Wen Jiabao (white haired and sitting fifth to right of Chairman Xi) looked stonily ahead.

The whole sequence was simultaneously highly unusual given the meticulous stage management of such events and predictable – almost a ritualistic humiliation of a more conciliatory and outward-looking former regime, just for the sake of international audience. A signal of an end of an era. The footage was heavily censored internally in China.

So what was on the white piece of paper at the center of the fracas? Enlarged photos showed that they included a list of names – new members of the Central Committee. Although these names shouldn’t be a surprise to Mr. Hu (as appointments are circulated well in advance to party elders), it is possible that there were last minute changes or purges that the former president disagreed with. And there was much to be disagreeable. Mr. Xi was ‘re-elected,’ but neither Mr. Li (Li Keqiang and Li Zhanshu) were. Nor were there anyone from the Communist Youth League (tuanpai faction which was closely aligned with Mr. Hu) in the new PSC or Politburo. For the first time, it would consist of the Minister for State Security, China’s spychief, and would be all male – a first in 25 years.

Heinrich Harrer’s Tibet

As 65th Anniversary of the Communist Takeover of China approaches, Iconic Photos is looking back at the world it changed.

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In April 1944, Heinrich Harrer escaped a British internment camp in India to begin his 21-month journey across the Himalayas, across 65 mountain passes. Only in January 1946 — long after the war that forced the British authorities to detain Austria-born mountaineer (and as it later transpired, a member of the Nazi party) Harrer – he walked into the Tibetan capital at Lhasa, like a starving beggar.

Harrer was to spend seven years in Tibet, later recounted as the eponymous book and movie (above); under the Potala Palace, he built a skating rink, which brought him to the attention of the palace’s inhabitant, the 12-year old Dalai Lama. For the priest king, Harrer built a cinema, running the projector off an old Jeep engine. Later, he was Dalai Lama’s tutor in maths, geography, science, and history.

Harrer was an avid photographer too. He didn’t have a camera with him when he escaped, but later managed to barter a 35mm Leica from a local noble who bought it in India. He cut and re appropriated negatives left by a pre-war expedition and scavenged for chemicals to develop photos. As Court Photographer, he had taken over 2,000 negatives, of which a selection was published in 1991 in the album Lost Lhasa. His book was an unparalleled and sole account of nomadic, feudal, and monastic life as lived by the Tibetans well into the 1940s and 50s — a time capsule of rituals and festivals which had been banned for last five decades.

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This life, including the pilgrims’ circuit of Lhasa he documented, was soon to be wiped out by a series of Chinese invasions. Both factions in the Chinese civil war, the Communists and the Kuomintang, had maintained that Tibet was a part of China. At the end of the civil war, the victorious Communists were ready to incorporate Tibet by force.

Two months after the Communist takeover of China, Mao Zedong ordered his army to march into Tibet. Feudal Tibetan theocracy was ill-prepared for a fight and months of frenetic negotiations failed to deliver results. On 23rd May 1951, the Tibetan representatives were forced to sign an agreement which in exchange for nominal self-governance, Tibet agreed to be part of China.

A decade of localized hostilities against the Communist followed; in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet as the Communists reneged on self-governance promises.

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(More photos here and here).

Tiananmen

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Twenty-five years after the Tiananmen Massacre, the nasty brutish affair resonates on …. but only outside China. 

I have remembered June 5th in various ways over the last five years. With a contact sheet in 2013, with an interview with Charlie Cole, the photographer who took one of the iconic Tank Man photos in 2012. The year before, I remarked upon the Zeligian appearance of a former Chinese prime minister in one of the photos taken on the square. In 2009, I covered various versions of the Tank Man photos. In between, we saw the defacing of the Mao portrait during the protests and a defiant Ai Wei Wei. A profound irony is they cannot access WordPress from China, so I remain, as always, preaching to the choir.

I hate to keep banging on this drum but as a blogger of history, attempts to change history offends me to no end; and because of its economic power, China has gotten away with it too, aided by the biggest companies, latest being LinkedIn. In an anticipation of the 25th Anniversary, a stellar book is out: People’s Republic of Amnesia which every student of history and totalitarian regimes should read.

In a memorable passage, the author showed students at leading Beijing universities the photo above. The Chinese youngstars use many means to bypass the Great Firewall, but the black-out surrounding the history has been so effective,  so total that only 15 out of 100 of the students polled correctly identified the picture!!!

So dogs may bark, but caravans have moved on. Charade continues. I will keep on blogging about this photo and the Communist Party will keep censoring it.

We will meet again in next June.

Abandoned Baby | China

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This blog gets frequently linked from reddit, many of whose users think this photo as ‘the worst photo ever’. For this author, that photo was not even the worst photo ever taken on a hapless child dying on the ground.

The photo above, by Jeff Abelin – of whom I found very little — speaks volumes louder. This photo conjures up a world of medieval fairy tales — of Hansel and Gretel — in late twentieth century China; a world where untold millions are sacrificed at the altar of demographic dividend; a world where certain stretches of the Yangtze River are common sites of infanticide by drowning. Life magazine comments on the photo:

“A group of Americans came upon this abandoned boy on a path in Fuyang and took him to a local hospital, where they were told by a staffer, “You should have left it where it was.” A day later, another baby was found [dead] in the same spot, and the day after that, the first child, suffering from pneumonia and a deformed heart, died anonymously.

“This picture and the accompanying story caused an uproar, as human rights activists placed the blame for a plague of abandonment and infanticide squarely on the government’s One Couple, One Child policy. Baby girls were at greater risk than boys, who might one day be of more use in the fields: Some estimates held that more than 1.5 million girls out of the 13 million children born in China each year, were being abandoned. Though the government countered that parents with “feudal ideas” were causing the problem, it eventually relaxed the One Child policy – a little.”

Life was optimistic and included the photo on ‘100 Photographs That Changed The World’. True, draconian forced abortions and imprisonments were replaced by huge fines for violators of One Child policy, but the photo didn’t change much. One Child policy still persists, some seventeen years after the photo was taken in September 1997. Today, China has 25-40 million fewer baby girls due to selective infanticides.

Mao’s Last Photo

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The year 1976 was not a happy year for Communist China. It began in January with the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, the urbane party grandee who held back the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. A few months later, in July, a severe earthquake hit the industrial city of Tangshan, killing 250,000 people, according to government estimates (the real figure was probably much higher).

That the year was the Dragon Year — a watershed moment according to the Chinese astrology — could not have been far from anyone’s mind, let alone that of the old man succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease behind the walls of the Forbidden City. Chairman Mao was 81 and he had been the leader of the Chinese Communist Party since 1943; now he had been reduced by his ailment to communicating by means of cryptic scrawls on notepads. (The only person who could decipher them was his nurse).

Mao made his last public appearance on May 27, 1976, when he met the visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto was a great admirer of Mao, emulating Chinese Communism with his own Islamic Socialism and Mao’s Little Red Books with a similar red book called “Bhutto speaks” and it was suspected that it was during this last meeting that Mao agreed to transfer 50 kg of uranium to Pakistan — an act that allowed Pakistan to develop its first nuclear weapons in the 1980s.

The photos from the meeting were last photos of Chairman Mao — and they made abundantly clear to everyone, including Mao, that he would not be alive much longer. Seeing them, Mao decided to end his public audiences altogether. By September, he was dead.

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24 Years After Tiananmen

Iconic Photos’ annual look-back at a nasty and brutish affair.

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June 5th is upon us again. In 1989, the Communist government in Beijing marred the date with a brutal and bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters gathered on Tiananmen Square.

Last year, I marked the occasion by an interview with Charlie Cole, the photographer who took one of the iconic Tank Man photos. The year before, I remarked upon the Zeligian appearance of a former Chinese prime minister in one of the photos taken on the square. In 2009, I covered various versions of the Tank Man photos. In between, we saw the defacing of the Mao portrait during the protests and a defiant Ai Wei Wei. A profound irony is they cannot access WordPress from China, so I remain, as always, preaching to the choir.

Above is the contact sheet from Stuart Franklin’s version of the Tank Man photos.  His photos nearly risked confiscation by the Chinese police, but Franklin had left moments earlier to cover events at the Beijing University before the police came knocking on the journalists’ hotel. Afterwards his negatives were smuggled out in a packet of tea by a French student who later delivered it to Franklin’s Parisian office. Franklin, working then for Time, won the World Press Photo Award for his coverage.

Ai Weiwei

What better symbol of the Chinese Colossus’ feet of clay than the baseless accusations against a lone artist, except possibly the inconvenient fact that the arrested artist was a co-designer of the Bird Nest Stadium, the centerpiece of the Beijing Olympics? 

On 4th April, the artist Ai Weiwei was arrested by the Chinese government as he tried to board a plane out of Beijing. The arrest was unfortunate, but not altogether shocking. He may be the country’s most famous living artist, but Ai Weiwei had been the proverbial thorn in the Chinese government’s side for more than two decades.

He went on a hunger strike after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown; when he returned home from exile in New York, where he studied painting and photography, one of his first acts was to take a photo of his wife lifting her skirt and exposing her underwear on the Tiananmen Square.  The bloodied square is a regular, conscientious feature in his work. When he took pictures of his hand, with middle finger extended, in front of famous national icons — from the White House to the Eiffel Tower — a middle digit was firmly raised to Mao’s portrait on the Tiananmen Gate . In case the symbolism was unclear, he stood in front of the Forbidden City, his shirt open, the word “Fuck” on his chest. He also named his Shanghai studio — which was forcibly demolished by the government earlier this year — “Fake”; it was less of a commentary on the modern art world than a Chinese homophonic take on “fuck”.

Yet these antics belied his strong political convictions; his twitter feed, while sometimes playful, focused on disappearances and detentions of dissidents. Equally inconvenient to the Chinese government were the questions on accountability he raised in the aftermath of the Sichan earthquake. Eventually, like Solzhenitsyn or Havel before him, Ai was arrested not just for his work, but also for what he came to represent: the conscience of a voiceless generation alienated by their own government.

Neither the Beijing Olympics nor the Shanghai World Expo — both considered China’s coming-of-age parties — could mask the truth that behind a faux-veneer of prosperity and development, China in 2011 was ideologically and politically no different from China in 1989 or Soviet Union before 1989 or Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Market economies, olympics and expos were introduced, with ample wishful thinking that they would alleviate some political, ethnic and religious marginalization, but the most important things last twenty years provided to the Chinese government may be tools to monitor and marginalize their population better, cheaper, and from a further, safer distance.

(Click here to sign a petition to free Ai Weiwei, which has attracted over 90,000 signatures. It would have attracted more signees if not for a hacking attack from China).

Portrait of the Artist as A Communist Tyrant

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

“If Mao’s Little Red Book was the national bible, Mao’s official portrait was the national stamp,” wrote the New York Times. Of these omnipresent facsimiles which graced bookcovers, stamps and money, not to mention walls of homes, schools, factories and government buildings, the most famous weighs 1.5 tons and stands six meters tall. A potent symbol of Communist power still hangs on the Tiananmen gate tower, from which rostrum Chairman Mao commenced a new republic in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

But very few people remember that Mao was not the first Chinese leader to appear in such hagiographical form on the Tiananmen Square. After his death in 1925, Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic, was remembered by a giant portrait erected in the square. A similar image of Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader, stood on the guard tower from in 1945 (below left).

That Was Then, This Is Now

When the Communists first seized power in February 1949, they replaced Chiang Kai-shek not only literally but also on the Tiananmen. The first version of the iconic Mao was a hastily sketched portrait that stood barely a meter tall. But by the time Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1st, the portrait was already in its second iteration, and showed Mao with an octagonal cap and coarse woolen jacket.

Soon, the cap has to go too, and in 1950, after a brief competition, a teacher from the Beijing Art Institute named Zhang Zhenshi was made Mao’s first official portrait maker. He painted the standard image, Mao in his trademark gray suit, that became the imprimatur of Communist China. (It was on one of Zhang’s images that Warhol based his Mao series.) Initially, the portrait had a functional purpose — it served as Mao’s double for people who were too far away to make him — a primitive version of those video screens at concerts. This portrait, which had Mao gazing into distance, was replaced by one in which Mao stared down at people.

In 1967, when the Cultural Revolution was already raging, a final tweak was added to the painting: for the first time, it showed both of Mao’s ears, rather than just one, proof that he was listening to all the people and not just a select few. This frontal pose has remained the standard ever since. In 1976, when Mao died, the colorful oil portrait was briefly replaced by a black and white photograph during the mourning period.

In Black And White

During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, three teachers from Mao’s hometown defaced Mao’s portrait by throwing eggs filled with ink at it. They were swiftly arrested, and later received some of the harshest sentences in the crackdown with sentences of 16 years, 20 years and life respectively. For all the symbolism it represented, the portrait is often defaced (most recently in 2007 and 2010), and a spare is always kept on hand by the Communist Party for such eventualities. During the Tiananmen Square protests, however, the party was unable to replace the portrait swiftly, and they covered it with black cloth.

just one of many cover-ups in China that year

However, its importance in national myth is indelible; when the very first portrait was to be auctioned off, the public reaction forced the Chinese government to intervene and retain it. Similar outcry from Chinese diaspora forced Citroen to withdraw adverts featuring the iconic Mao unflatteringly.

Citoyen Mao

 

 

SimMao

Truth be told, seeing Mao even on Baidu Maps (China’s propaganda mouthpiece-cum-searchengine) inspired this post. Looking at Baidu Maps in 3D is like playing SimCity. My only objections are (1) that the Tiananmen Gate didn’t have such huge lanterns on it, and (2) that they still haven’t installed tanks in front of the Beijing Hotel yet.

 

 

The Other 1989

As Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times, there is something very tragic about Bahrain, the next stop on the Arab World’s 1989 train. That it is one of the most democratic countries in the Arab World may say more about its neighbors than Bahrain itself, but the country indeed made some crucial strides towards democracy in the last decade. In addition to a F1 racetrack, an international banking centre and a US naval base, Bahrain also has a well-educated political classes, constitutional monarchy and representative (if powerless) parliament. Yet, in the last two days, by violently attacking its own citizens, Bahraini government had negated all these steps towards democracy. Even if Bahrain’s Sunni rulers survive in its predominantly Shi’ite state, they will never recover from the bloodshed of yesterday — a poignant reminder of the Other 1989.

The Other 1989. The one in which the Chinese government brutally decimated its own citizens on the Tienanmen Square. Today, we don’t talk much about it for various reasons. Firstly, time had, sadly, clouded our memories. Secondly, positive-thinking forces us to focus more on (and draw parallels only with) on the Cold War that was won in 1989, not on its inconvenient Chinese chapter. Thirdly, we have cravenly abandoned our democratic and humanitarian principles to nurture our (undeniably important) relationship with China. Lastly, within China itself, Tienanmen Massacre was carefully purged out of history and out of collective memory itself.

On another front, the Bahraini protests provide a rare glimpse into how photoagencies and newspapers work alongside one another to cover breaking news from far away lands. Currently, the same photo from Getty Images taken by John Moore near the Pearl Square graces the homepages of major English-speaking news outlets: the New York Times (Global)/IHT; the Telegraph; the Times of London, the BBC; and Time magazine. Le Nouvel Observateur has a smaller version on its homepage and El Pais has another John Moore/Getty Image which is part of the same series. These days, seeing an identical image on such varied assortment of papers is extremely rare, and almost an unique occasion. (In other major papers, Le Monde has an AFP photo and Der Spiegel has a Reuters photo on their homepages).

This is a clear illustration of advantages photographers working for huge photoagencies have over other freelancers or even those who work for individual papers/magazines. This is also another reason that individual papers and magazines do not hire photographers exclusively anymore. For instance, no less than four photographers covered the famous Tank Man moment, but Jeff Widener was able to rely on a network (AP) and managed to distribute it faster than others working independently. It was Widener’s photo that was widely reproduced the next day. Likewise, Charlie Cole, with distribution and publicity power of a weekly (Newsweek) behind him, won a World Press Award for his version, although it can be said that of Stuart Franklin (Magnum, independent) was more aesthetic.

 

 

The Good Soldier Lei Feng

In 1962, an unheralded conscript was killed in Fushun, northeastern China. Lei Feng was just 20 when a banal accident — a falling telephone pole — ended his yet-undistinguished life. Officials later fortuitously uncovered his diary, allegedly filled with words of selfless devotion to the Communist Party. His ideal had been “to be a small cog in the machine,” working for the party and Chairman Mao. “Parents are dear to their children, but they can’t compare with Chairman Mao,” read one entry.

Mao needed all the propaganda skills he had to divert attention away from the Great Leap Forward, which was failing spectacularly; Lei Feng’s story was a godsend — as much as that word can be employed within Mao’s atheistic society.  ‘Lei Feng’ myth thus promptly began with a ‘Learn from Comrade Lei Feng’ campaign, initially focused on performing humble Communist deeds, but later also on following the cult of Mao. The biography of Lei Feng saw some strange variants before the definitive version was prepared by the writers of the Propaganda Department in 1964.

Chinese leaders, including Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin praised Lei Feng as the personification of altruism. ‘Lei Feng Exhibitions’ were organized in the large cities, showing many different “original” copies of the hero’s diary. These exhibitions –and the official illustrated diary — also contained a remarkable number of photographs, such as “Lei Feng helping an old woman to cross the street,” “Lei Feng secretly [sic] doing his comrades’ washing,” “Lei Feng giving his lunch to a comrade who forgot his lunch box,” and so forth. Susan Sontag was frankly dismissive of the authenticity of these photos in her On Photography. Simon Leys was more sarcastic in his 1977 book Ombres Chinoises: “Only cynical and impious spirits will wonder at the providential presence of a photographer during the various incidents in the life of that humble, hitherto unknown soldier.”

After Mao’s death, Lei Feng briefly remained a cultural icon symbolizing selflessness, modesty, and dedication, but his life became more openly questioned. A photograph later hilariously showed Lei wearing a wristwatch, an item of extravagance that was officially denied and practically unavailable to people of his rank*. Although many contemporary writers dismiss Lei’s continued importance, he remains one of modern China’s most resilient icons. Although his prominence in textbooks has declined, Lei Feng remains part of the national curriculum. He may now be subjected to open mockery, but there are still Lei Feng memorial, museum, and memorial day, and his life was also still celebrated in songs, T-shirts, kitsch internet animations and even a video-game even into 1990s and 2000s.

(cf. Wristwatches also made a rather unfortunate appearance in another series of iconic propaganda photographs made by an equally suffocating dictatorship.)