Age of Enlightenment?

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enlThe National Museum, one of the main building on Tian’anmen square has re-opened its doors after 4 years of renovation. Its total floor space is around 200,000sqm, over 3 times more than the Louvre. In the frame of a bilateral cooperation between Germany and China, for the grand opening almost 600 art pieces have been transferred from three major German museums.
The theme of the exhibition is the Age of Enlightenment … or in Kant’s words “Mankind’s final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error”… now in Beijing, at China National Museum!

I was working for a sponsor of the exhibition, and since I was helping for the video coverage of the opening, I was there with a German client. When we got to the entrance hall, a bust of Kant welcomed us with the motto of Enlightenment: “Have courage to use your own understanding”.
My client felt a little puzzled: “use your own understanding??? I thought we were in China?!”
Actually me too I was a bit surprised myself, I rather expected something about harmonious enlightenment, harmony through knowledge, joyous society etc.
Anyway, I told him that in China, when you talk about Art, there’s more freedom than in other domains, probably because the message conveyed is not so obvious as it is in other media, and for a Chinese common visitor is not so immediate to switch from the philosophical perspective of Enlightenment to the political implications for nowadays China.
During the pre-opening, we saw hundreds of faces seamed by years of hard work, people from the countryside and from the city’s lower classes. These are the usual visitors who join tours organized by local party committees and the first ones to pay their tribute to all the symbols of Communist China (the posh/wannabe crowd prefers a Martini in 798 instead of Mao’s stuffed corpse).
Honestly, in those visitors eyes I could hardly see any concern about the incoherence between Enlightenment message and Chinese regime…

Then the press conference came: all the usual blabla about intercultural love and friendship, and the announcement of a series of cultural dialogues between East and West, which will be side events of the main exhibition.
By the end of the conference, a journalist from German National tv asked the Chinese organizers how could a dialogue be possible when Chinese government put people under arrest for thought crimes and harshly limits citizens’ freedom.
The reply was pretty simple and straightforward: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re sorry but we’ve run out of time and we have to close the press conference”.
Disappointment, giggles, murmurings, everybody left the hall.

In the last few years, my overall opinion about Chinese leadership was positive. I’ve always been thinking that the way a country has to be governed depends on people’s level of education and ethical growth. When you educate a kid you can explain him why he should or shouldn’t do something, but you can only do that within the limit of his understanding. Whenever an explanation would exceed this limit or a situation of urgency or potential danger occurs, you need to be more authoritative and impose rules by means of a strong leadership. However, I believe that a benevolent leadership should protect people but at the same time educate them to protect themselves on their own, nurturing their knowledge, and providing them tools to have and use their own understanding, as Kant said.
I feel that Chinese authoritarianism goes far beyond situations of emergency or situations beyond common citizens’ understanding, and at the same time, I can’t really see citizens’ emancipation as a Party’s main goal.

On the contrary, when I heard the awkward reply during the exhibition’s press conference, when i think about CCTV faking news about Libya, when I know that my access to Google is slow because someone is silently e stingily trying to limit my freedom of choice, well, I someway become blind to all the undeniable improvements the Party brought to common Chinese citizens’ life.
I feel that my idea of a long educational process, carefully leaded by the Party toward the possibility of a Chinese democracy, where people are able to do responsible choices, it’s just a personal utopia.
When you come to facts instead of leaders’ statements, the ultimate goal is still controlling knowledge, preserving ignorance, easing rulers’ life, and once in a while throwing a sop to citizens.

They say “It’s a process”, another political mantra like “harmonious society”.
Am I too critical and/or impatient?

PS: And now Ai Weiwei, one of the most brilliant Chinese artist and political activist, was arrested and now he’s missing.

Author: Alessandro De Toni