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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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.

Mao’s Last Photo

Mao-Butto

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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The Photo of an Unknown War

The blog likes to note there is often no truth in photography. What better photo to illustrate this point that this one used in propaganda by both Communists and Fascists, and in two wars a decade apart. 

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In the late 1970s, as the gerontocractic fascism of Francisco Franco drew to a close, historians revisited his arrival onto the world stage during the Spanish Civil War, now viewed in retrospect as the Dress Rehearsal for the Second World War. They pointed out the above photo as an evidence of atrocities committed by Franco’s troops on their prisoners of war during the Civil War, an eerie precursor of Fascist crimes to come.

Throughout the Civil War, both sides exploited the power of news media and newly-popular photography, at times using the same photographs. Back in 1938, the above photo was used by the Falange – the Spanish Fascists – to denounce the barbarous nature of the Spanish Republicans. In Corriere della Sera (which toed Mussolini’s line after the removal of its editor Luigi Albertini), it was labelled as the communist International Brigaders holding the heads of Spainish patriots.

The photo, which does look like a poor Photoshop attempt, is often attributed to David Seymour, the future co-founder of Magnum who made his name during the Spanish Civil War. It was not clear who actually took it and it was not even clear when it was taken. In 1938, when L’Humanité, an organ of the French Communist Party, saw the photo, it used it to denounce the French colonial empire in North Africa.

In that aspect, L’Humanité was closer to the truth (but perhaps accidentally). The photo was perhaps taken during the Rif War (1921-1927), when Spanish and French Foreign Legions brutally put down a Berber rebellion in Morroco led by Emir Abd-El-Krim.

The photo first appeared fittingly in Memoires d’Abd-el-Krim, a book whose pedigree was also in doubt. Jacques Roger-Mathieu claimed that the book was dictated to him by Abd-el-Krim onboard the vessel Abda which was to transport the defeated emir to his exile on the island of Réunion. Although, it appeared with a grand subtitle of “la confession ou les confidences”, many now doubt the book’s authenticity, noting it was filled with “absurdities of all sorts, lies, and anachronisms”. As per Roger-Mathieu, the photo depicted Spanish Legionaires with the heads of Rif fighters.

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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.

 

 

Hungary, 1956 — John Sadovy

Photojournalism’s most memorable images were crafted by the right men at the right moment. John Sadovy was one of those. One of few photojournalists who got into Hungary during its tumultuous revolution in 1956, the Czechoslovakian-born Life magazine photographer duped the Communist border guards by disguising himself as an ice-cream salesman.

The Hungarian Uprising began as a student cafe movement; viewing it as an economic and social struggle rather than an ideological one, the authorities both in Budapest and Moscow dismissed it until it was too late. A group of freedom fighters attacked the headquarters of AVH — the hated secret police — and marched their erstwhile oppressors out and executed them at point blank range.

Sadovy was there and his Capa-award winning photos captured fury, revenge, and terror — eloquent outbursts of an emotive revolution. In Life, he wrote an editorial which ran alongside his pictures: “I could see the impact of bullets on a man’s clothes.” The man who served as company photographer with the British Army during the Second World War recalled that these were the quickest killings he had ever seen, and there was “nothing to compare with the horror of this…. the tears kept running down my face and I had to keep wiping them away.”

As the photos suggested, covering the revolution was extremely dangerous. Sadovy was wounded on the hand, and Jean-Pierre Pedrazinni of Paris Match — who along with Sadovy was one of the first Western journalists to arrive in Budapest — got a machine gun burst in his stomach and leg before he could get many pictures and died.

The peaceful student revolt was usurped by radical elements and Moscow finally sent in tanks. While Sadovy’s photos were testaments to atrocities committed by both sides, in White Book, the official Communist version of the events of 1956, they became part of propaganda campaigns to discredit the revolution, and were used as the primary evidence to persecute and exile student leaders. Meanwhile, Correio de Manha, the daily in Rio de Janeiro, gave permission to the Delamerikai Magyar Hirlap (South American-Hungarian Herald), a right-wing Hungarian diaspora paper, to publish the photos, which they did under the headline, “This Is How The Russians Kill”.

More photos here.

The Death of Che Guevara

FreddyAlbertoChe-1

Che Guevara disappeared from the political scene in April 1965 and his whereabouts have been much debated since. His death has been reported several times during the past two-and-a-half years, in the Congo and in the Dominican Republic, but has never been proven. After leading communist insurrections in Guatemala, Cuba and Congo, Che Guevara’s next stop was Bolivia, where he was less than successful. On October 7 1967, his campsite was attacked, and Guevara was wounded and taken prisoner. He shouted “Do not shoot! I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead.” However, he refused to be interrogated and the Bolivian government decided to execute him, carefully orchestrating the execution to make sure that the bullet wounds appear consistent with the official story which stated that Che had been killed in action.

The day after his execution on October 10, 1967, Guevara’s body was then lashed to the landing skids of a helicopter and flown to nearby Vallegrande where photographs were taken, showing a figure described by some as “Christ-like” lying on a concrete slab in the laundry room of the Nuestra Señora de Malta hospital. The above iconic shot was taken by Freddy Alberto. After the photos, his hands were cut off, so that they could be taken to Buenos Aires for fingerprint identification. He was buried in an unmarked mass grave.

libera_pozytywy_06A parodic reenactment

0.71704100 1191848539 AFP File Photo