The arrival of swarms of foreign curators, critics and collectors underscored what big business Chinese art has become—and why Chinese authorities have backed off [restrictions on artists]. “In the 1980s the government actively combated [contemporary art]; in the ’90s they ignored it,” says Ulli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China who set up one of the first—and largest—collections of contemporary Chinese art in the 1990s. “But now, gradually, they are discovering that it is a financial resource—the world wants Chinese art, so they are slowly getting into it.” Pi Li, a curator and art critic who teaches as the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, says the government stopped abruptly shutting down contemporary-art shows around 2000, as it prepared to join the World Trade Organization. “It wanted to prove how much we’d improved on human rights,” he says.
[…] Some experts remain skeptical of the government’s newfound openness. Pi Li, who worked with China’s Ministry of Culture to curate shows of Chinese contemporary art at the Venice Biennale and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, says that during his collaboration with the government, works were tightly screened and often changed at the last minute from their original proposals. And there are still instances of censorship; earlier this year authorities for unspecified reasons abruptly pulled a show of performance artist Zhang Huan, who returned from abroad to open a large studio in Shanghai.