At age seventeen, he enlisted in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during a recruitment drive to support the Sino-Vietnamese war, initiated by the country’s then leader Deng Xiaoping.
A central theme to Guo Jian’s art derives from his observations of the application of propaganda and the arts to both motivate soldiers and sway public opinion. His perspective comes from his experiences as a propaganda poster painter in the PLA and propaganda officer in a transport company, then later from the outside looking back in as a student demonstrator during the Tiananmen Square protests in the spring of 1989…
Here is a sample of the show:
XIAO CHEN: Hi. My question is related to also the censorship. Have you ever felt your values or even the truth be compromised in such a censored kind of environment? And also how do you maintain your integrity and also your creativity in such an environment.
TONY JONES: Let’s go to Guo Jian first.
GUO JIAN: Actually, I was really want to jump in in the last questions but my case, like, actually I really agree with this. The change definitely is definitely going now. It’s on. But my case, like when I – like back like 25 years ago when I was in the Yuanmingyuan Artists Village there, the police are come in. They don’t say anything. They just coming to check everything, to take everything or maybe send you to some sort of a re-education camp or something. But they coming to realise, right, but…
CHENG LEI: They still take your things.
GUO JIAN: They don’t take your things now. They talk to you and then they say, “Do you want to have tea?” or have (indistinct)… So we call this having tea, right. This is (indistinct). So they’re really nice now, seriously.
TONY JONES: Does that feel sort of sinister, though, come and have tea and talk about your artwork that with a party official?
GUO JIAN: For the beginning we really nervous to have tea with them, right. But now we just like, “Now, why don’t have drinks?” So we can have drinks now.
TONY JONES: What do they say to you? Do they look at your work and say, well, this piece looks a little bit edgy to me?
GUO JIAN: They just like, words is like, oh, if you feel comfortable with your studio, if you have problems with your studio, we can fix up with you and or what you do, right? And they asking the questions about your works and you tell them the – I mean YouTube I just block myself from then. But now just I freely…
TONY JONES: Because your style of work, it has to be said, is known as cynical realism. So you take the old propaganda idea of propaganda art and you…
GUO JIAN: I was a propaganda artist. Yeah.
TONY JONES: You were. And you’re cynical about it now?
GUO JIAN: Yep. Yes. Look, back to like – OK, let’s say this. Like back to 20 years ago if I do this I definitely got troubles, including in the studio. Now, I think I may not get a show in the publicly but I could do in my studio. They come up and the still say something. They say, oh, why you do this. Why you do this? And when they – when I tell the story they say, oh, maybe it’s not the time to show. That’s it. So I think censorship still really strong remain there but I agree with that one day we definitely go through that. Yeah.
TONY JONES: Let’s hear from Cheng Lei on this. The question really was about whether you had to sort of in a way compromise your yourself at any stage.
CHENG LEI: Compromise my integrity.
TONY JONES: Did you, in your career, have to do that?
CHENG LEI: I think it’s much easier to criticise and to hold very absolute standards on so-called integrity when you’re not here. I think it is more meaningful for me to be within the system and to feel that I am effecting change as Mei said, at a steady pace…
The other panelists were: Dr Geoff Raby, Australian Ambassador to China from February 2007 to August 2011 and Deputy Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) from November 2002 to November 2006; Mei Yan, who advises major global corporations with a particular focus on public affairs, government engagement, mergers & acquisitions and corporate reputation management, as well as crisis and issues management; Ma Tianjie from Chinese Greenpeace; Cheng Lei, an anchor for the BizAsia show on CCTV-News, the English language channel of China Central Television.
Yes, there were topics not canvassed – Tibet, Xinjiang and Uighurs obviously, but much was canvassed. Quite excellent.