OPINION

We oppose late-term abortions, er, rather, elections

PAUL WELLS September 8 2008
OPINION

We oppose late-term abortions, er, rather, elections

PAUL WELLS September 8 2008

A 350pound Sleeping Beauty wakes up

OPINION

There ought to be a name for the period when artists who have lived in a repressive regime get a bit of sunlight and almost all of them start painting men with their trousers off. I've never seen so many penises as on the

walls of the artists’ quarter in Beijing. I suppose it is the post-penal period. Even the ceramic life-sized panda, very jolly looking, sat on a studio floor holding his erect red penis in his hand. If the panda was modelled from life, that might explain the shortage of them: what’s needed is less self-stimulation and more involvement with lady pandas.

Our little group of eight trundled around the studios of artists now commanding million-dollar prices in Sotheby’s auctions. We poked about in very famous artist Zhang Xiaogang’s place while he watched in a very friendly manner. I was especially disposed to like his work after he told an interviewer on CNN that for him the Cultural Revolution was rather fun. He was eight years old when it began and got to do pretty much whatever he wanted. That struck me as a very honest answer, not the sort of thing you get from former Red Guards or most of the lethal hooligans the 20th century has provided in such numbers. The answer as to why his work hadn’t been shown for years was elegant: “The government never said I couldn’t display my work; they just said it was a problem of different artistic perspectives.”

My own favourite was the new work of Zeng Fanzhi, which, as I told his gallery manager, I’d give a lot to own. The gallery manager was suitably inscrutable and replied “Yes, he does well at auctions.” I’ll say. US$9.7 million last May for one work. Zeng is a child of the Cultural Revolution as well. Growing up in Mao’s experiment must have been purgatory. Still, obviously good angst for some when you look at the work of these children of chaos.

So, China has million-dollar artists, great

restaurants including the new Maison Boulud, in one of the few old buildings in Beijing that survived the fun of Mao’s “destruction before construction” unleashed by the Cultural Revolution. There are glossy magazines, the Beijinger, Beijing Tatler, and even professional tanning studios (“opposite to the north gate of Workers’ Stadium”). There are fantastic skyscrapers and Western boutiques, if not as many as in the premier shopping city of Shanghai. And though you could glimpse hovels and filth hidden behind freshly painted high walls and shrivelled dirt-land areas without the newly

planted (and some say painted) trees that lined all the routes to the Olympics, there’s no denying China’s amazing progress—in the major cities at least. I don’t think anyone, the national government included, has a clue what’s going on in the rest of that huge country.

Opening ceremonies at the Olympics were all that a good totalitarian state can do. Bigwigs watched from air-conditioned boxes, lesser invitees sweltered in 100° F heat. The incredible drum display that opened the Games, four rows in front of me, was eerie in its precision and power. The spectacle that followed had moments of indelible beauty (and ghastly sentimentality) with, underneath it all, the thump of militarism. For centuries China has been humiliated, having to punch under its weight in an unseemly display for so great a people. Now, punching at its own weight, we are discovering just how tremendous that is. The Chinese story is rather like the prince kissing Sleeping Beauty only to find on her waking that she weighs a healthy 350 lb. and the bed is cracking under her thunderous thighs.

At the moment, the People’s Republic of China remains a fairly hideous phalanstery in which terror and suppression play their part and nationalism is supreme. IOC Pres-

ident Jacques Rogge expressed “surprise” at having no demonstrations at the Games even though three sites had been earmarked for them. He jokes! Allegedly underage Chinese gymnasts don’t bother me a whit—it’s a silly rule anyway given the unnatural life most athletes lead from age five—but waiting for additional papers to establish their legality is another joke in a country that didn’t need Communism to give the art of forgery cultural respectability.

My bed at Sir David Tang’s China Club, where I was his guest, was out of this world.

But slightly out of this world too was the atmosphere in Beijing. Talk about buttoneddown Manchurian Candidate. “I take this,” said the smiley-smiley female security guard at the Olympics as she removed the 10 pills of Advil from my handbag. My prescription medicine got a different treatment. “Take one now,” she commanded breezily, smiling. Rather than have it confiscated, I “took” and consequendy hippity-hopped with unnaturally frenzied energy.

They’ll learn. What’s scary is that as the menus, the hotels and the infrastructure all improve, the system itself remains the same: totalitarian. But it’s a system able to reasonably reward its citizens, one that could actually survive and grow. The Soviet Union overextended, undernourished, poisoned by its own ideology, had an internal collapse. The Nazis were so aggressive that they bit off more than they could chew. But imagine how awful it would have been if the thousand-year Reich had shown restraint and actually gone on for a thousand years; if Hitler had not stupidly wanted to do everything in his own lifetime, but just laid the foundations of a Nazi empire.

China is huge, but its need for natural resources is vast. It needs Lebensraum as much as Germany ever did. Imagine a “One World, One Dream” thousand-year Chinese totalitarianism, shiny and wonderful as the Olympics, growing and expanding its really godawful system all over Asia. Imagine “nothing to kill or die for and no religion too...” John Lennon, who would have swallowed the Potemkin village of the Olympics hook, line and sinker, had it spot on. M

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‘Take one now,’ the female security guard commanded breezily, smiling. I took.