Chinese Communist Party slogans spark graffiti war on London’s Brick Lane

Chinese art students daubed Chinese Communist Party propaganda slogans on a popular graffiti wall in London’s Brick Lane, sparking a huge backlash of pro-democracy slogans that included calls for Xi Jinping’s resignation and references to the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

Students led by Wang Hanzheng, who is studying in London and uses the Instagram handle “Qiyue” painted over the colorful layers of graffiti left by previous artists in white paint, before daubing key words linked to ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s political ideology on the walls in red paint, using a style similar to propaganda slogans on buildings back home.

“Prosperity,” “Civility,” “Harmony,” the characters blared out, although indecipherable to many passers-by. “Patriotism,” “Integrity,” “Friendship,” they read, in a reference to Xi’s “core principles of socialism.”

Within hours, people started arriving and adding their own graffiti to the wall, much of it linked to Beijing’s human rights record, and referencing recent protests.

In front of the characters for “democracy,” someone wrote “No,” while the words “404 Not Found” appeared underneath.

“Xi Jinping step down!” said another slogan, while others called for freedom for Tibet and Xinjiang and “Glory to Hong Kong,” referencing the banned anthem of the city’s 2019 protest movement.

“F**k communism,” read another comment, while a sticker on the wall read “No Xi dictatorship.” Above characters proclaiming “Equality,” someone scrawled “but some are more equal than others,” in a reference to George Orwell’s dystopian novel Animal Farm.

Under the slogan “Freedom,” someone had added “No freedom in China,” while another slogan reminded people: “Never forget June 4,” in a reference to the 1989 massacre of unarmed civilians by the People’s Liberation Army following weeks of pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square.

In a post on his Instagram account, Wang claimed that there was no political meaning to his work, which was criticized in the comments section for totally erasing the work of earlier artists.

But he also claimed it was a Marxism-inspired attempt at “decolonizing the false freedoms of the West,” later saying he had been the target of cyberbullying and declining to meet up with Radio Free Asia’s reporter for a prearranged interview.

“The original intention was to trigger discussions on different environments and different people’s attitudes,” he said in an Instagram statement about his graffiti. “I love my country very much.”

‘No political stance’

Wang was widely criticized on social media for painting over the work of graffiti artist Benzi Brofman, which in turn commemorated late graffiti artist Myartis Frank.

He claimed on Instagram that he had obtained Brofman’s consent before painting over his work.

Instagram user @elianpace dismissed Wang’s claim that the slogans weren’t political.

“Why do people who claim to have ‘no political stance’ use such strong political symbols as their creative material?” they wrote.

A man sprays a pro-democracy message on a wall that had been graffitied with Chinese Communist Party ideology, on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023 in Brick Lane, London, England. Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images
A man sprays a pro-democracy message on a wall that had been graffitied with Chinese Communist Party ideology, on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023 in Brick Lane, London, England. Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

Council workers moved in on Monday to paint over Wang’s work, but more people turned up to write and paint anti-Chinese Communist Party slogans.

“The struggle against totalitarianism is the struggle between memory and forgetting,” wrote one person, quoting late Czech-French author Milan Kundera, listing a number of dates that are still marked by pro-democracy activists in mainland China and Hong Kong, including June 4, 1989 and June 12, 2019, when police first cracked down on unarmed protesters in Hong Kong with tear gas at the start of a mass movement against extradition to mainland China.

Someone else spray-painted a wall with a depiction of two hands holding up a blank sheet of paper, referring to the “white paper” movement of November 2022 in cities across China that saw scores of activists detained, but which was followed by the end of three years of grueling zero-COVID restrictions.

Some of the counter-graffiti was made by a pro-democracy group called China Deviants.

“There are also many people [here] who, like us, uphold the values of freedom and democracy, and hope to maintain them on British soil,” one member of the group, who gave only the pseudonym Gonki for fear of reprisals, told RFA.

“At the same time, we hope that freedom and democracy will become a reality in China one day.”

‘Trampling on someone’s epitaph’

Another group member who gave only the nickname Nuomici said Wang’s daubing of Communist Party slogans had upset many Chinese people living in the United Kingdom.

“My friend’s first reaction when he saw it was one of trauma,” she said. “Because there are already so many walls in China with these socialist values painted on them, and so many different voices and artwork have been erased by the censorship system back home.”

“I had hoped that coming to a foreign country would mean more space for self-expression, but now this is like an invisible red thread, binding us [to China],” she said.

She said Wang shouldn’t have covered over Brofman’s commemorative artwork.

“It’s a bit like going to a cemetery and trampling on someone’s epitaph,” she said.

China Deviants said in a statement it would reach out to Brofman in the hope of finding a way to restore his work through crowdfunding.

Eventually, the council workers came back and painted over the second wave of counter-slogans too, according to photos posted by London freelance photographer Kit Y.

“Gone, gone, gone,” the account tweeted on Tuesday morning local time, with photos of white walls, with just one slogan commemorating the Tiananmen massacre still visible.

Political graffiti is written on a wall in Brick Lane, London, England, Aug. 7, 2023. Credit: Henry Nicholls/AFP
Political graffiti is written on a wall in Brick Lane, London, England, Aug. 7, 2023. Credit: Henry Nicholls/AFP

Chinese Communist Party commentator Hu Xijin tweeted: “Chinese students who covered London’s Brick Lane with socialist core values graffiti are facing death threats.”

“These students’ original intention was probably to test the true limits on Western ‘freedom of speech.’ And here are the limits,” Hu wrote.

Exiled Chinese artist Badiucao countered on Tuesday: “A group of rich n privileged Chinese nationalist students from elite art school like Royal college of Art went to destroy entire street art scene by local grassroots artists from Brick Lane under the name of Marxism and de-colonization.”

“Can it get more hypocritical and brutal?”

X user @jajia said Wang’s account on the Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu suggests he is a “Little Pink” nationalist.

Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.

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