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January 09 2012

The designer skin he lives in

Young Russians no longer pay homage to him, but the Bolshevik leader 'lives on' in a carefully choreographed show of solemnity inside a Moscow mausoleum. But for how long?

In Moscow at this time every year the debate resumes about what to do with Lenin's body, which, contrary to the Bolshevik's wishes to be buried next to his mother, has lain in state in Red Square since his death on 21 January 1924. Last year, Prime Minister Putin held an online poll in which 70% of participants felt his body should be buried. That result yielded no decision either way (no doubt because it was not the one Putin had hoped for). Nevertheless, when I found myself in Moscow just before Christmas, I seized the opportunity to pay Lenin a visit while I still could. What I encountered was part reliquary, part freak show – and an impressive work of experience design, as stage-managed as anything in the London Dungeon.

The experience begins with a procession along the wall of the Kremlin from a set of metal detectors at the very entrance to Red Square. In Soviet times, a 100m-long queue was a permanent fixture. Today, the queue has disappeared but its infrastructure – a chain cordon – remains, as I discovered the hard way. Not seeing the way in, I stepped over the chain and soon met with a policewoman charging at me and blowing her whistle. Finally inside the mausoleum (having been sent back to the top of Red Square) I was respectfully stomping the snow off my shoes when I was violently shushed by a guard. All of this is part of the choreographed solemnity that includes the prohibition of hats, cameras, talking, hands in pockets and lingering. Because, despite the morbid voyeurism of wanting to see the body of a man who died 88 years ago, this is not a freak show; it's a piece of political theatre.

The mausoleum itself was designed by Alexey Shchusev in 1929 to replace a temporary wooden one he'd erected within days of Lenin's death. Made of marble and granite, it is a series of concentric cubes resembling a step pyramid. Shchusev shared the suprematist Kazimir Malevich's belief that the cube symbolised eternity. Since his masters, known as "the immortalisation commission", were using the latest technology to make Lenin last forever, his tomb was to be a kind of Mecca. And not withstanding the irony of a secular political system creating its own saint, there is something of Mecca about it, processing around the body the way Muslim pilgrims process around the cuboid Ka'aba.

Or at least there should be. But I found myself alone inside the chamber – alone, that is, except for two guards and Lenin himself – and not so much processing as gawping. It is one of the most impressive rooms I've ever entered, though this is only partly down to the architecture. The black granite floor and walls, with their red marble lightning motif, communicate such density you feel like you're at the heart of a mountain. But most of the impact comes from what is inside this container: the bizarre sight of this embalmed body lying there like a bald Snow White in a black double-breasted suit and polka-dot tie.

The atmosphere is one of incredulity. Is that waxy thing Lenin at all, and if it is, how is he in such good condition? Only a blackened fingernail hints at the deterioration of an actual body. As to whether he is real or fake, the answer is of course both. For as solid as the architecture is, it is merely a stage set. The real architecture of this would-be religious experience is the framework of chemicals that keeps Lenin's skin firm. The scaffolding in the cells of his face is a solution made up of potassium acetate, glycerol and alcohol, in which he is routinely bathed. All that marble and granite is merely compensating for the frailty of Lenin's mortal body.

Similarly, whatever the atmosphere in the chamber, the only thing that matters is inside the glass sarcophagus. Designed by Nikolai Tomsky, the purveyor of socialist realist statues to public squares across the Soviet Union, it echoes the ziggurat shape of the tomb. But more importantly, it conceals the machinery that regulates the climate around the body to 16 degrees and 80% humidity – just as in a shopping mall, the air conditioning is more important than the architecture.

The same team that looks after Lenin has reportedly been embalming North Korea's Kim Jong-il, continuing a fine communist tradition that has included Stalin (briefly), Mao and Ho Chi Minh. The motives of the communist ideologues in preserving Lenin as their prophet in perpetuity are clear. What this pickled body has to do with modern Russia is less so. The younger generation no longer pays homage to it. Boris Yeltsin wanted to bury it, but Putin had no wish to dispose of this pseudo-religious relic. In fact, just as he has sanctioned the continued fortifying of Lenin's skin, Putin has created his own cult of the body. He has made a show of his judo skills and posed topless for the cameras. In contrast to the semi-real Lenin, Putin is the "muzhik", or the "real" man. But is he? Rumours abound that Putin's expressionless face and smooth skin are down to Botox and plastic surgery. It's almost as though the more outmoded a politician becomes, the more artifice is required to keep him fresh. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 23 2011

Kim Jong-il on the escalator: dictatorships are going down | Jonathan Jones

This photo of the North Korean leader in life is as surreal as those of mass mourning for his death, but democracy has won

Dictatorship rides the down escalator of history in this photograph. For me it is picture that shows why 2011 was a good year for the world.

Kim Jong-il stands apart from the officials who carefully compose themselves on the steps above him. He gazes directly at the camera from behind sunglasses, the all-powerful observer of his people. The others do not look directly at the camera but seem unsure where to cast their eyes.

They are entering a new supermarket, full of produce. Canned food and fluorescent lights – clearly North Korea is a land of plenty. No wonder there is such reverence for the man who brought this economic success. Kim Jong-il seems isolated by his power. A magic circle, a force field of charisma, keeps him apart. After all, according to reports that have followed his death last Saturday (at 8.30am, on his special train, according to state media), natural prodigies marked the passing of this miraculous man. Best stand back from a man of such uncanny attributes.

This picture of Kim Jong-il in life is as surreal as the images of extravagant collective mourning for his death that have filled the state media of North Korea this week. Yet surrealism is in the eye of the beholder. The comedy of this photograph is fringed with blackness. It is known that many North Koreans live on the edge of malnutrition and starvation. The well-stocked supermarket that the great leader graces with his presence is cruelly deceptive – a show supermarket, a Potemkin image of plenty (or at least, by the standards of neighbouring countries, normality).

That is cruelly obvious. What is really interesting about this, and other images from North Korea, is how we react to them. True, the state over which the man on the escalator presided has nuclear weapons and other potent military assets. The country cannot be ignored, any more than a man with a gun on the street can be ignored. But this picture raises a wry smile. North Korea's political system strikes outsiders as freakish and bizarre and grotesquely out of step with history.

On the down escalator, and approaching the bottom. Behind our reaction – baffled and, let's be honest, amused – lies a success story. In our lifetimes democracy has won. It has established itself as the best of all political systems. And in 2011 the democratic idea made amazing, unexpected headway.

The point about this photograph of the isolated totalitarian mirror universe ruled by Kim Jong-il is that it is a curiosity. Like a two-headed snake, it is worth keeping in a jar. But 50 years ago this picture would not have seemed strange at all. Such propaganda scenes were depressingly normal in a large part of the world. The Soviet Union and a huge tract of Europe were governed by autocratic parties. From Prague to Moscow, party leaders were posing in show factories and shops all the time.

Go back further, to the 1930s, and large parts of western Europe were ruled by dictatorships of the right. Totalitarian leaders stood apart and were apparently revered, just as in this photograph.

At the time they were winning. "If you want a vision of the future," wrote George Orwell, "imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever." Comparisons between today's economic travails and the crisis of the 1930s are misplaced because totalitarianism was then the wave of the future. That is simply not the case today.

2011 has been a great year for democracy. People demanded their rights across north Africa and the Middle East. Authoritarian, corrupt rulers suddenly found themselves denounced as tyrants by people they believed safely under their boot heels. In a benign version of John Foster Dulles's cold war "domino theory", the virus of democracy spread from one Arab state to another. If Kim Jong-il had a heart attack, Colonel Gaddafi of Libya died in far gorier circumstances. We are definitely not living in the 1930s, when dictatorship was on the rise. Today the last dictators are an endangered species.

In China, the state's attempt to silence dissident artist Ai Weiwei merely strengthened his voice. And that voice has consistently expressed what also seems fundamental to the Arab spring: democracy and human rights are universal imperatives. Just because these ideas originated in Europe and America in the 18th century does not make them somehow less relevant outside the affluent west. The right to free speech and free elections is a basic human need, everywhere, say the revolutionaries of 2011.

Europe itself might be accused of democratic backsliding this year as "technocrats" came to power in Italy and Greece. But it is a melodramatic fantasy to see democracy in danger in the eurozone. Once again, the comparison – or rather the glaring contrast – with the 1930s should cheer us up.

In 2011 democracy was on the march. This is a picture from a nightmare that most of the world will never endure again. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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November 26 2011

Ai Weiwei: 'Every day I think, this will be the day I get taken in again...'

The more he is harassed by his government, the more Ai Weiwei becomes a symbol of activism in China. But how much longer can he continue to speak out?

The surveillance camera police have trained on the turquoise gate of Ai Weiwei's studio in north Beijing captures a steady stream of visitors; journalists, well-wishers, the art crowd. Five months after his release from an 81-day detention, and in the wake of a fortnight of extraordinary expressions of public support, Ai is anticipating other arrivals. "Every day I think, 'this will be the day I will be taken in again.'

"That's also the impression they [the authorities] try to create, not just to me but to the whole society; to anybody who has different opinions," he adds.

A few years ago the celebrated Chinese artist was a well-established figure in the international and domestic art worlds; provocative, certainly, but respectable enough to co-design the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing and be covered by Chinese state media. Then his outspoken views and activism triggered clashes with authority, culminating in this year's detention – part of a broader crackdown on activists, lawyers and dissidents that saw dozens held and more harassed, threatened or placed under other restrictions. He has become, to many, the face of human rights in China: more a symbol than a person.

"The fact the government disappeared him, and then afterwards continued to go after him through various charges, sends a signal to other activists that even if you are well known it does not really protect you," says Wang Songlian of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders Network. "On the other hand, the way he turned it around was very clever, and I think activists have been energised."

"It's never about me," says Ai, now 54. "[My supporters] use me as a mark for themselves to recognise their own form of life: I become their medium. I am always very clear about that."

Ai emerged from his ordeal in June, far slimmer – having lost almost 10kg, some of which he has regained – and apparently chastened.

"My energy was very low after these 81 days and I really needed the time to recover, mentally and physically. I was quite fragile," he acknowledges. "I tried to do much less, because I also think this is not a game I can play. If they can make you disappear, why do you still play this game? Ridiculous.

"But even if you don't speak, they still put these false accusations on you … So then you feel, if you don't speak, you are part of this crime. I guess both sides are very disappointed." He laughs.

There are fewer flashes of the puckish humour these days and he is more cautious in his pronouncements, but he is nonetheless saying more than the government would like, and recent actions by his supporters speak still louder. When authorities handed him a £1.5m tax bill, thousands helped him pay the first tranche, some flinging money over the studio walls. When police mooted the possibility that he was guilty of pornography – in relation to photos picturing him and four women, all naked – they tweeted nude pictures of themselves.

"We are trying to work with a very limited space. To people who do not understand the conditions, it may look ridiculous. But to us, that's the only space," he says.

"Normally people feel powerless. That's how society becomes a society, if they think they have a little power and support and help to solve the problem."

The downside is not only the risk of authorities using the donations against him – by deeming it illegal fundraising – but the ever-increasing expectations of his supporters. He was "thrilled" to learn how much support he had received during his detention, but the pressure from both sides has become hard to bear.

"One side has so much hope they put on my shoulders. I cannot really help them. I can't even help me; my condition [situation] is quite bad," he observes.

As he talks, a black spaniel is snuffling around the table; it's not hard to see why Ai has such a fondness for his numerous pets. "I think they are in a parallel world … They don't really care. I was in, I was out; they are always here."

The passion and fury Ai inspires make it easy to overstate his influence. He is well known to art lovers in China, but a very long way from being a household name. He has galvanised people who would not normally make political statements; but they are a tiny proportion of even the educated elite, never mind the rest of the country's 1.3bn population.

His bleak view of China has also been questioned. It is true that people are far freer to criticise authority than 30 or even 10 years ago; that their personal freedoms are vastly expanded and that many are broadly satisfied with the tacit deal – growing economic prosperity in exchange for political limits.

But others share his concern about the Communist party's rigid grip on power as it strives to reassert control over mainstream and social media, and to roll back some of the space that an embryonic civil society has carved out. Last week prominent Chinese legal scholar Jiang Ping warned that the country increasingly resembled a dictatorship.

The Chinese government insists Ai's case is unrelated to human rights and that he was held for tax evasion; critics say the western media have lionised him when they should be assessing his financial records. But it is impossible to do so; police confiscated the documents of the company that handled his affairs. Ai deems the tax bill "political revenge or punishment" and says it has no factual basis.

"It is legitimate to ask whether Ai Weiwei or, more accurately, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, owes taxes," Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based independent human rights researcher, wrote recently.

"It is also legitimate to raise questions about political motivations behind the prosecution, because of the particular way in which the police intervened in this case prior to any investigation by tax authorities, the fact that Ai's disappearance was carried out in the context of dozens of other detentions … unambiguously political in nature, and the way the propaganda machinery has been mobilised to smear his reputation."

Ai was reportedly interrogated more than 50 times during his detention, but about his views and activism rather than his financial dealings. He does not go into detail about what happened but points out that many of the others detained this spring were treated far worse. According to the accounts that have trickled out some were beaten; many were deprived of sleep, forced to sit in stress positions and threatened. Several still show clear symptoms of trauma, say friends.

"I think I recovered the most. About 100 people were taken in. Only a few have spoken out. Most of them [seem] to be silenced for ever – some you can see are completely crushed," Ai says.

"It's hard to recover. You become not so innocent. You become, in a way, more sophisticated, which I think you shouldn't. We should all have more simple happiness ... You become bitter."

And yet, he adds: "Maybe there is something I got from it. Maybe you also start to be clear on certain things."

The parallels with his father's case are inescapable. Ai Qing was a revered poet, which in part explains the relative protection his son has enjoyed, but endured years of persecution after being condemned as a rightist. "His whole heart loved art and literature. But he was crushed; he almost committed suicide several times," says Ai, who grew up in a labour camp.

"My voice is not for me. Every time I make a sentence I think how many people for how many generations had a voice that no one could hear. At most they will be remembered as numbers; in many cases, even numbers don't exist.

"I think I have this responsibility for my father's generation, and especially future generations."

Still, he insists, "I am not a dissident" – simply someone put on the spot by the government's actions.

Amid the political storm, it is easy to lose sight of Ai's artistic record. His work is on show in London, Berlin and Taipei; next year will see exhibitions in Sweden, France and the Netherlands. More remarkably, a gallery in Beijing is exhibiting some of his past work – including the list of names of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake. His attempts to tally the deaths of those who had died in shoddily constructed schools put him on a collision course with authorities.

Friends say he views the outside world critically, too; his 2007 work, Fairytale, in which he transported 1,001 compatriots to Germany, was not only about exposing participants to another way of life, but about challenging European perceptions of the Chinese.

His studio is busy again, but "I don't really care that much about if I want to be more successful or less successful in art, because I never think life and art should be separate," Ai says. "What's life if you don't have conversation and joy and anger?"

Activism is the inevitable result of his art, rather than a distraction from it: "If I was a scientist maybe [restrictions on expression] wouldn't bother me – but as an artist, finding a way to communicate with people is the core activity."

In an authoritarian society, he adds, that can only lead to conflict. Many wonder if Ai will tire of the unending tussle and move abroad. His conditions of release prevent him from leaving Beijing for a year, but the government would probably be happy to see him go; critics usually slip from public view once they emigrate.

He says he has to respect the opinions of his family, but thinks it important "to try to stay here as long as possible".

In any case, China has, he says, "braver, more brilliant" young people than him, with a fresh set of ideas.

"That's also quite encouraging. It's about life, actually. It's a story about life," he says. Not about him.

Five other figures of dissent in China

Chen Guangcheng

The blind lawyer was jailed for damaging property and obstructing traffic after helping women who had suffered forced abortions. He has been under house arrest since his release last year; scores of activists have shown their support by attempting to visit his village in Shandong, despite being beaten and harassed by thugs there.

Liu Xiaobo

Beijing was furious when the Nobel committee awarded the jailed author the peace prize last year. He is serving an 11-year sentence for subversion of state power, having co-authored Charter 08, a call for democratic reform in China. Officials say he is a criminal, not a dissident.

Liu Xia

The poet had little interest in politics, but spoke out about her husband Liu Xiaobo's case and vanished after he won the Nobel prize. She is thought to be under house arrest; in February she made brief online contact with a friend, saying she was a hostage and no one could help her.

Gao Zhisheng

Once feted by authorities, the lawyer angered them by taking on sensitive cases such as those relating to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. He vanished in 2009 and alleged – during a brief and bizarre reappearance last year – that police had subjected him to sustained torture.

Ni Yulan

Clashes with officials over housing rights left the lawyer disabled and homeless. She was among the many detained this spring; while most have been released, Ni and her husband are awaiting trial for "creating a disturbance". Human rights groups say they are increasingly concerned about her health. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 17 2011

A sense of community in Polish art | Agata Pyzik

The visual arts in Poland are finally starting to engage with the country's history and politics, and the debate is a lively one

More than 20 years after introducing a brutal, neoliberal economy into a decaying late communist reality and creating a capitalist market, Poland now has a much-desired art market.

A few years ago, when there was something of a boom in Polish art, an attempt was made to label it Young Polish Art, after the British equivalent. This trend is now fading, partly because numerous events during the long Polska! year promoting Polish culture in the UK failed to attract much publicity.

Even Miroslaw Balka's prestigious Turbine Hall commission in 2009-10 did little to change the worldwide recognition of Polish art.

What has shifted is the political impact of Poland's so-called critical art at home. Polish art, rather than being simply an entertainment for the rich, is engaging with politics and the country's history – and is much more interesting as a result. It is not mere épater les bourgeois – Polish visual arts challenge society on a much deeper level than Polish film or literature.

This is the legacy of the 1990s, when makers of critical art reacted to the years of censorship, superficiality and lack of democracy, and revealed that not much had changed in the new democratic reality.

We enjoyed, on a smaller scale, a version of the Viennese Actionist movement. Artists such as Katarzyna Kozyra, Artur Zmijewski, Zbigniew Libera, Robert Rumas and Grzegorz Klaman excavated Polish traumas, touching upon religiosity, too-soon forgotten memories of the Holocaust, intolerance and exclusions (of homosexuals, women, the disabled), various taboos (such as non-normative sexuality, the body and its visceral aspects or ageing) and the way individuals are controlled in a free, but actually extremely oppressive, society. More rarely, they addressed the inequalities wrought by the transformation from communism to capitalism.

These artists played upon the theme of the individual versus the system, exposing the fact that the choice between one oppressive system and another is not really a choice at all, at a moment when the majority of society regarded liberalism as the only option and the brutal transformation from communism a necessary evil.

By self-exposure (one example is Kozyra, who posed as Manet's Olympia while suffering from cancer) or assuming the role of a perpetrator (for example, Zmijewski, who asked a former concentration camp prisoner to "renew" the tattooed number on his arm), critical artists worked through and acted out numerous traumas, frequently becoming the object of harsh censorship. Gallery closures were common, as was the removal or even destruction of work.

A couple of years into the new century, however, some of the most successful critical artists, such as Zmijewski, started to criticise this kind of art for being self-indulgent and for lacking any visible political success. Critical art had not disrupted the system, it was claimed. Worse, it had become a playful, attractive gallery object, all the more pathetic given its initial ambitions. In 2005, Zmijewski became an art editor of Krytyka Polityczna, a newly emerged but increasingly popular political club and magazine where he published his manifesto, Applied Social Arts, prompting fervent debate about the political impact of Polish critical art.

While Zmijewski was accusing his peers of political indifference, he and others were becoming renowned, appearing frequently in international art magazines and getting the official nod: there were huge retrospectives for Libera and Kozyra as well as big group shows in key Polish art institutions.

In this sense, Zmijewski was wrong: critical art was capable of political agency, because it provoked national debates that redefined the status quo.

The question with which Polish artists are now struggling is how to map the realm in which art can still mean something and have an impact.

For Zmijewski, the gallery space has become irrelevant. Critical art has been accused of only being interested in big existential questions, ignoring the social reality of the poor and excluded.

Zmijewski responded to this by making a number of socially engaged works: he filmed dozens of demonstrations for his ongoing series Democracies; in his Work series he filmed people doing particularly unattractive, mind-numbing jobs: a cashier in a hypermarket, a street cleaner.

Recently he made a film, Catastrophe, about mourning the Smolensk air disaster, which studied the behaviour of the crowd that stood in front of the presidential palace brandishing a giant cross and raising all kinds of social tensions. Zmijewski himself provocatively chose to side with the religious crowd, and presented them in a positive light.

Yet his work is ambivalent, probing the idea of what constitutes a community: that same square also witnessed the only moment when a counter-crowd manifested itself, yearning for a secular country and calling for the release of city spaces from the church's domination.

Polish artists are looking for new models of engagement, since the sense of community we had earlier was destroyed, and the only new community we're being offered is manipulated by the Catholic church or by a sense of victimhood.

In neoliberal Poland, caught between the cynicism of the rightwing populists and the cynicism of the liberals, between lack of self-confidence and an inferiority complex, this sense of community is what we must restore. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 12 2011

Freed China dissident tells of interrogation by police

Hunt for conspirators scheming to topple communists behind 45-day detention, says petitioners' rights activist Liu Anjun

Days of interrogation in a cold, secluded room taught Liu Anjun that China's security forces see dissidents and protesters like him as players in a plot to topple the Communist party, a fear that is driving Beijing's crackdown on dissent.

The most internationally prominent target of that crackdown has been the artist, Ai Weiwei, but the net is reaching far wider and reflects the party's desire to confront not just general discontent, but a subversive movement waiting to pounce.

Liu, a gravel-voiced, charismatic agitator for petitioners' rights, was taken from his family on 18 February. Police bundled him into a van and locked him in a hotel room in south Beijing. For six days, police interrogators showed him pictures of dissidents, human rights lawyers and activists, seeking information about their mutual contacts, beliefs and plans, Liu told Reuters at his home in Beijing where he was recovering after his release from 45 days in detention.

The police have been hunting for evidence of a web of conspiracy bringing together domestic and foreign foes that the Chinese government believes are behind Middle East-inspired calls for "jasmine revolution" protests against the party.

"They took out picture after picture, mainly of democracy activists and rights defenders, and asked about each of them," said Liu who walks on crutches after a leg injury sustained in a protest over the demolition of a former home. "They were trying to build up links among everybody, trying to get me to tell them who was supporting what."

Chinese leaders believe domestic enemies, their foreign backers and western governments are scheming to undermine and ultimately topple the Communist party. Recent speeches and articles by security officials echo this anxiety, with warnings of subversive plots backed by western "anti-China" forces.

Shortly before China's clampdown intensified in February, a senior security official, Chen Jiping, said "hostile western forces" – alarmed by the country's economic rise – were promoting human rights issues to undermine Communist control.

Many of the individuals that police interrogators quizzed Liu about had already been detained in the crackdown. They included the artist Ai Teng Biao, a well-known rights lawyer, and Wen Tao, a reporter who is a friend and helper to Ai, said Liu. "They also asked a little about Ai Weiwei and showed me a picture of him from a party," he said. "I told them I didn't know anything about any of them. "

Officials have said Ai faces investigation for "suspected economic crimes", but his sister, Gao Ge, dismissed this, saying Ai was detained for his political advocacy. "The police officer who led the searches of his workshop was from state security. That says a lot," said Gao. "If this is just an ordinary investigation, why haven't we heard from Ai Weiwei?"

China's government does confront discontented citizens and groups who want to end one-party rule, and the US and its allies make no secret that they want China to become a liberal democracy.

What outsiders may see as a loose, disparate group of dissidents, bloggers, lawyers and grassroots agitators, China's security police treat as a subversive, western-backed coalition with the potential to erupt into outright opposition. "[In China] there's a tendency to look for the 'black hand' and to look for an organisation," said Joshua Rosenzweig, a researcher in Hong Kong for the Dui Hua Foundation, a US group that works for better treatment and the release of Chinese political prisoners.

"Their mentality is still based on the conspiracy of the revolutionary cell," he said. "The idea of a counter-revolutionary clique has never really gone away in China."

The party's alarm about domestic threats inspired by the anti-authoritarian uprisings in the Middle East and north Africa grew after an overseas Chinese website,, publicised calls for peaceful protests across China emulating the jasmine revolution.

That fear has deep historical roots. In official eyes, the pro-democracy protests in 1989 were the work of counter-revolutionary agitators backed by the US and other western powers.

More recently, according to two sources in Beijing, officials circulated documents claiming to show a western conspiracy was behind the award of the 2010 Nobel peace prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, a veteran of the 1989 protests. Those sources spoke on condition of anonymity.

"It's not just a general sense that the western governments supported the Nobel decision; it's a real belief that it was dreamed up in Washington as a way to attack China," said one of the sources

Official Chinese fears of western-backed subversion have been reinforced by the view that "colour revolutions" that swept central Asia several years ago were western-promoted rehearsals for a similar subversive assault on China.

Chen, the security official, was a senior producer of a documentary shown to officials several years ago to stress the threat of Western-backed "colour revolution" subversion. The call for a jasmine revolution brings together two of the Communist party's great fears: western-backed opposition and the power of the internet to influence and possibly mobilise China's 453 million users.

"What's been going on in north Africa and the Middle East is a prime example in some people's eyes of the colour revolution," said Rosenzweig. "What we're seeing is in my recollection ... the largest number of people who have been rounded up at once for online expression."

Even if Ai is not charged on broad subversion charges often used to punish criticism of the government, police will be able to use their access to his computers and records to assemble more information about other potential targets.

"I think now they're going to investigate all the people connected to Ai Weiwei," said Liu . "Ai Weiwei could be a political sacrifice so they can investigate a lot more people he knows." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 01 2011

Milton Rogovin obituary

Photographer whose documentary work chronicled the lives of America's poor

'All my life I've focused on the poor," declared the American photographer Milton Rogovin, who has died aged 101. "The rich ones have their own photographers." In 1957, while practising as an optometrist, Rogovin was hauled up and discredited by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and labelled "Buffalo's Top Red" by the local newspaper. His response set him on a course that defined the rest of his career, and produced one of the great bodies of social documentary photography of the 20th century. "My voice was essentially silenced, so I decided to speak out about problems through my photography. Ordinary people interested me, and I wanted someone to pay attention to them."

Rogovin was born in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of three sons of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. In 1931, during the Depression, his parents lost their business and soon afterwards his father died of a heart attack. Four months later Rogovin graduated from Columbia University with a degree in optometry and, after initially working in Manhattan, in 1938 he took a job in Buffalo where soon afterwards he opened his own practice on the Lower West Side. In Buffalo he met his wife, Anne. They married in 1942, the same year he bought his first camera. He spent the next three years as an optometrist in the US army, serving in Britain.

In Manhattan he had been active in the Optical Workers Union and had taken classes held by the Communist party-run New York Workers School, where he came across the social documentary photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. Later, while he was librarian for the Buffalo branch of the Communist party, the McCarthy committee tried to destroy him: "My optometry business immediately dropped in half. We were shunned. Neighbours refused to allow their children to play with our children."

A friend, William Tallmadge, a professor of music at the State University College, who was recording the music in the storefront black churches on the city's East Side, commissioned him to photograph the congregations. Self-taught, or as he put it "a rank amateur", his pictures came to the attention of the photographer Minor White, who was an editor at Aperture, the pre-eminent photography magazine. White mentored Rogovin, and in 1962 published a portfolio of 48 of these photographs, together with an introduction by WEB Du Bois, a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in the magazine.

Over the next 10 years Rogovin photo-graphed miners in West Virginia and Kentucky, and Native Americans on reservations in New York state. In the 1960s, the poet Pablo Neruda invited him to Chile, and they later collaborated on Windows That Open Inward (1985), a book of poems and photographs. Rogovin's most famous body of work is The Forgotten Ones (2003), a collection of photographs of Buffalo's residents taken between 1957 and 2002. "I wanted to make sympathetic portraits of the poorest of the poor that showed them as decent humans struggling to get by ... that they were people just like us and should not be looked down upon."

Deceptively simple, his portraits are infused with respect. Initially he was greeted with suspicion by the people on the Lower West Side, who thought he was either with the police or from the welfare office. But he worked as a team with his wife – she was his collaborator throughout his career –and they made a habit of giving a print to each of his subjects. Early misgivings turned into popularity, and soon they were positively welcomed into people's homes. "When you look at these pictures, you know there was no monkey business, and that I was not sneaking around trying to steal pictures of people." There is a directness to his portraits, which celebrate his subjects' everyday lives, and have a casual empathy reminiscent of family photographs. "The only thing I asked them was to look at the camera."

For nearly 40 years Rogovin took these portraits, sometimes photographing the same people several times, a decade apart, as they grew from children to parents themselves. The result was Triptychs: Buffalo's Lower West Side Revisited (1994). He carried on photographing in the neighbourhood until he was 92. His photographs are in some of the most prestigious museum collections in North America and Europe and, perhaps more importantly to him, because he believed that the pictures should be accessible to all, they are in many of Buffalo's public buildings.

Rogovin is survived by his daughters Ellen and Paula, his son Mark and five grandchildren. Anne died in 2003.

• Milton Rogovin, photographer, born 30 December 1909; died 18 January 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 14 2010

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Josef Wissarionowitsch Dschugaschwili aka Josef Stalin - Wikipedia EN / DE
Reposted fromnibbler nibbler

April 29 2010

China: The 42th anniversary of Lin Zhao's death

By Oiwan Lam

Lin Zhao (林昭), a Peking University student, was arrested in 1960 during the Anti-Rightist Campaign launched by Mao Zedong in 1957 and sentenced to death on 29 of April (today) in 1968, 42 years ago at the age of 35. She could have exchanged for her freedom and life by a writing a political confession, instead, she chose to write in the prison with her blood.

Lin was once a devoted supporter of the Chinese Communist Party and participated in the Land Reform. When she was studying in the Peking University, she sided with CCP leader Peng Dehuai's camp criticizing Mao Zedong's extremism in the Great Leap Forward and People's Commune Movement and was then labelled as an anti-revoluntionary rightist.

In 1981, the Shanghai Higher Court vindicated Lin Zhao's case but her file is still defined as state secret. Below is a portrait of Lin:


In 2003, independent film maker Hu Jie(胡杰)released documentary titled as “In Search of the Soul of Lin Zhao” (detailed report see Washington post). The documentary can be found in youtube.

Lin is now the icon of political dissidents and human rights activists in China. Ran Yunfei explains in bullogger:

林昭与人类有史以来,最为强暴的政权的对抗,不仅是中国人的精神资源,甚至可以说是人类 共同的精神遗产。但对她抗暴的相关努力,由于至今尚未解档,官方的遮蔽掩盖,致使她的行止丰仪语焉不详,不为外界大多数人所知。与此同时,一些与她有过联 络的人,或者同学们也由于这样或那样的顾虑,不愿接受采访,承担一点相应的作为朋友或者同学的责任,这岂止令人遗憾!虽然我尊重每个人的选择,但正是这样 的懦弱,造就了残暴的专制政权。再者,提篮桥监狱监管并虐待林昭的人,也不能完全用体制之罪来为自己的恶行推脱。只要档案不被毁,正义一定等得到审判邪恶 的那一天,虽然迟来的正义其价值已经减弱,但不忘记邪恶可以在一定程度上伸张正义。

Lin Zhao struggled with the most violent state power in human history, she is the spiritual resource for all Chinese people and the legacy for the whole world. Her effort in fighting against violence has not been unveiled yet. The government continues to cover up and most of the people do not know much about her. At the same time, for those who know about her, her friends and classmates, out of anxiety and fear, they refused to talk about her. This is so regretful. Although I respect individual's choice, such kind of cowardliness has brought about the cruel authoritarianism. The prison guards who tortured Lin Zhao in Tinan Bridge prison could not use the excuse of the system for their crime. So long when the record is preserved, the evil will be judged. It is a belated justice, but the retrieval of people's memory will bring light to the dark history.

Zhongshan University Professor and independent film maker Ai Xiaoming started an online event: “100 things you can do to remember Lin Zhao” and suggested various ways to remember Lin, such as

1. to learn about Lin's life history
2. to watch and share the documentary “In Search of the Soul of Lin Zhao”
3. to write about Lin Zhao, to visit Lin's tomb
4. to read Lin's writings, and etc.

You can join the event via facebook.

On 28 of April, a number of concerned citizens visited Lin's tomb in Jiangsu, Suzhou City, Mudu town and citizen journalist Tiger Temple recorded the activities:

In Beijing, artist Yen Zhenxue(嚴正學)who was sentenced to three year imprisonment on 18 of October 2006 under sedition charge and released on 17 of July 2009, completed Lin Zhao's sculpture in early April and planned an exhibition in 798 Art District on 10 of April. But he was assaulted by security guards and hospitalized on 3 of April. Below is Yen's finishing artwork:


Chinese netizens keep sharing Lin's writing via blogs, forums and twitter in the past few days. Below is one of the poems devoted to her prosecutor by Lin under the series “Roses devoted to the Prosecutor”:


Inject this drop of blood into my mother country's blood stream
This drop sacrificed my beloved freedom
Wipe it! Rub it! Clean it!
This is blood!
The blood of a Martyr
Who can wipe it away?
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