The slogans that make up the “12 Core Socialist Values” are a common sight on Chinese streets, as they were—for a tumultuous few hours this weekend—on London’s famous Brick Lane, where a Chinese student at the Royal College of Art painted the 24-character propaganda staple over Brick Lane’s other works of graffiti art. The installation immediately became a target for counter-graffiti, in English and Chinese, that criticized the Chinese Communist Party and drew attention to pressing social issues on the Chinese mainland. The graffiti free-for-all ended after local authorities whitewashed (literally) the entire wall, but the conversation continued to rage on Weibo until censors there whitewashed it (metaphorically) from the site. The images below show the original street art, the Core Socialist Values graffiti that replaced it, and the counter-graffiti added atop that:
Brick Lane before it became a canvas for propaganda and counter-narratives:
The Core Socialist Values graffiti shortly after completion:
A walking tour of the counter-graffiti:
The 12 Core Socialist Values are prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, the rule of law, patriotism, dedication, integrity, and friendliness. Since they were first incorporated at the 18th Party Congress (during which Xi Jinping was anointed as the CCP’s top leader), they have become a staple of party propaganda. In popular culture, their ubiquity has led to the proliferation of “Soviet-style” jokes, whose punchlines almost invariably revolve around the arrest of anyone who mentions the core value of “democracy.” The Party-state’s definition of “democracy” is at odds with most academic and popular conceptions of the term. Indeed, “democracy” is sometimes censored on WeChat, forcing would-be propagandists to share the 11 Core Socialist Values and a pinyin stand-in for “democracy.” Sometimes there are typos that inadvertently delete “democracy” from the Core Socialist Values. “Democracy” (民主 mínzhǔ) is often accidentally replaced with “enlightened ruler” (明主 míngzhǔ), an error more likely due to typists’ difficulties with the -n and -ng sounds than a Freudian elevation of Xi Jinping to emperor.
The BBC interviewed the designer of the Core Socialist Values graffiti, Wang Hanzheng (who also uses the name Yi Que for his artwork), about his motivations for the piece.
In an Instagram photo post, Mr Wang wrote in Chinese saying the group used the political elements as a coat “to discuss different environments.”
“In the name of freedom and democracy, it illustrates the cultural center of the West, this is London’s freedom… Decolonize the false freedom of the West with the construction of socialism, let’s see what happens,” the post reads.
“Needless to say what’s the situation on the other side,” he added.
Mr Wang told the BBC “there is no question” that the 24 characters are “not only goals of China, but common goals for the world.” [Source]
Later, Wang released a statement claiming that he had no political position and asked for privacy after he and his family were doxxed.
Not long after the 12 Core Socialist Values appeared on the walls of Brick Lane, they were covered in counter-graffiti that was highly critical of the Party-state. Some wrote demands that Xi Jinping step down, or slogans evoking the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, such as “Never Forget June 4” and “It’s my duty.” A group of feminists, one carrying a “last generation” bag, wrote: “Bringing down the government together with my sisters.” Others made reference to the feminist backlash against the Communist Youth League’s idealized virtual idol “Jiang Shanjiao.” Chains spray-painted around the slogan “rule of law” seemed to be a reference to Xiaohuamei, a woman who was chained up by her husband in a shed in Xuzhou, and was later found to have been trafficked and sold several times. Some added One Child Policy-era slogans. “Demolish,” a once-ubiquitous character during China’s mass-demolition era, was also written on the wall. Others wrote “Glory 2 Hong Kong” and “I can’t, I don’t understand,” a reference to the late doctor Li Wenliang, who was censured by police for trying to warn the public of the coronavirus pandemic.
The London neighborhood government that has jurisdiction over the lane painted over all the graffiti and counter-graffiti the following morning. On the Chinese internet, however, the conversation about the Core Socialist Values continued, despite censorship. Some WeChat users who tried to share photographs of the counter-graffiti via that platform reported that their WeChat accounts were suspended for unspecified violations of the law. Weibo censored photographs of the counter-graffiti, as well. At one point, Weibo censored the hashtags #London Graffiti and #London Graffiti Wall, although many posts on the subject remained visible as of publication. The WeChat essayist @没品驴 created a photo essay titled “Graffiti More Fitting For Study-Abroad Brats,” which included some spoofed images of the graffiti. Censors deleted the essay shortly after publication, but CDT has archived some of the images from it, below:
Spoofed wall text: Don’t spread rumors. Don’t believe rumors. Don’t start rumors. London is not beyond the law.
Spoofed wall text: The 12 core socialist values rendered as asterisks, as if one were trying to avoid censorship. [Chinese]
At The Guardian, Geneva Abdul interviewed some of those who added their own graffiti over the Core Socialist Values:
[H, a 24-year-old Hong Kong asylum seeker living in London,] sprayed a familiar slogan along the white wall.
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” is a phrase he has painted numerous times before as a participant in pro-democracy protests against Hong Kong’s draconian national security law in 2019.
“I think they repainted it white just to make people try to forget whatever happened here in the past week,” said H, who saw it as his “duty” to remark the wall.
“Prosperity without innovation; Democracy without human Rights; Civilisation without morality” were JJ’s choice of words, written in green marker.
The 38-year-old, who asked not to use her real name, was born in northern China and, armed with the understanding of the original slogan as “all lies”, said she needed to express her opinion.
“It’s just the irony because this is just propaganda, those are just empty words,” said JJ, who has lived in London for a decade. “In China, there’s no democracy, there’s no civilisation, there’s no harmony. People have no rights and it’s just empty words.” [Source]