Chinese political slogans spark graffiti free-for-all on east London wall

It began with a group of artists and a propaganda slogan: 24 Chinese characters painted in bold red, stretching nearly 100 metres along Brick Lane in London’s East End.

But over the weekend, the Chinese government slogan promoting – ironically or not – the country’s “socialist core values” was swiftly transformed into a forum scrutinising Xi Jinping’s communist rule after garnering attention on social media.

Within hours of appearing on Saturday, the slogan was overlaid with references to the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and phrases: “Free Taiwan”, “Free Tibet” and “Free Uyghurs”. Online, it proved more divisive; criticised by rights groups and activists as “disgraceful” and “Orwellian doublespeak propaganda”.

By early Monday morning, much of the text had been painted over by Tower Hamlets council.

Two people by white wall with small amount of graffiti.

“I didn’t know the original intention of the artist, but at least I can explain the second layer of what people added, which shows that Chinese people still have some agency,” said Mary, who asked not to use her real name.

“If you let them speak, they do have something to say,” she said.

At first, the painted slogan was accompanied by a mock museum label on paper, titled “Core Socialist Values, 2023”, referring to the Chinese slogan described as “ubiquitous” across the country – a slogan displayed in public spaces and on large posters.

“In an adamant display of freedom of expression, the characters, stand as a silent reminder of the oppression of thought, press freedom and to free speech that is still rampant in China in 2023,” said the statement from a group of “free-spirited Chinese artists”.

One of the artists, Yi Que, who first posted the slogan’s Brick Lane appearance on social media, later published a statement after concerns for his family’s safety and severe cyberbullying.

“I hold no political stance. The work aimed to provoke discussions on diverse environments and people’s attitudes towards them,” the statement said.

Born in Taiwan, Mary watched as the text was painted over early on Monday morning. But hours before, the 25-year-old student had watched as people penned their own social concerns with the Chinese state. She spoke with Chinese students and tourists she had just met – some, she later went to the pub with.

“I think that was beautiful,” Mary said of the discussions sparked by the slogan. On Monday morning, she was placing blue sticky notes with “freedom” and “equality” handwritten on them along the white wall.

“If you have a place like this to actually display what Chinese people have to say, they actually have a lot to say.”

While some people said they regarded it as an opportunity for freedom of expression and further debate, others found the slogan ironic, or a reflection of debates unfolding online.

And there were those who were upset that it covered up older work, including a tribute to another street artist who had died.

H, a Hong Kong asylum seeker living in London, said that while he did not agree with the slogan, freedom of expression was paramount.

“No matter what they say, you may not agree with them but I will die to defend what they have [the] right to say about it, to express about it,” he said.

When H first arrived as an asylum seeker in London, he participated in a protest outside the Chinese embassy. Now three years on, the 24-year-old sprayed a familiar slogan along the white wall.

People in Brick Lane by a wall with Chinese characters in red

“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.”

While she has no issue with the slogan’s original appearance, she thought its placement was disrespectful to the artist Benzi Brofman’s original graffiti it covered, and the local, east London community.

“It feels wrong … not all Chinese are like this, many Chinese people want to let the local people know that this is not our intention,” she said. “I think it should have happened, but they should have done their research beforehand.”

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