Between the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress in which General Secretary Xi Jinping effectively gave himself an indefinite mandate as leader and the perfectly choreographed visit of President Donald Trump, I found myself in Pingyao, deep in the heart of provincial China. Pingyao is an ancient walled city, once the financial capital of China. The official website says it was once ‘the Wall Street of China’. It is famed for Pingyao beef, noodles and a healthy vinegar that you can drink in shot glasses. The architecture is well preserved, rarely higher than two storeys and the air has the tang of coal smoke and gunpowder. The city is popular with local tourists but foreigners are relatively rare and as I walked the streets I was stopped frequently to take selfies or just to say hello. Everyone seemed incredibly friendly.

I was here for Year Zero of the International Pingyao Film Festival, the dream project of Chinese film director Jia Zhangke, famed for such masterpieces as Still Life, Touch of Sin and Mountains May Depart. He is an original and critical voice in China and as the artistic director Marco Mueller told me ‘hardly an official filmmaker.’ He had grown up in nearby Fenyang, which features in many of his earlier films. Here there was very little in the way of culture and it is Zhangke’s ambition to fill that gap. Building work began in August to convert an old industrial estate into a series of deluxe screening rooms and meeting spaces and although there were blips along the way – the dates shifted a week quite late on – the festival went ahead as planned, boasting a programme which featured a pick of international festival fare blended with a rich crop of Chinese movies, focussed mainly on young filmmakers. It was heartening to note that compared with the sausage party of Cannes, the selection presented a strongly female line up. Indeed, three women directors Chloe Zhao, Vivian Qu and Elisavetta Shishova picked up the bulk of the prizes.

Zhangke tacitly acknowledged to me the difficulties of censorship – ‘we have more patience than businessmen’ – but the Chinese films in the lineup presented a solidly critical version of Chinese society, whether it was the Anime-gangster caper Have a Nice Day or Qu’s stunning screed against corruption and misogyny Angels Wear White (which has also played the London and Venice film festivals). And yet Chinese censorship is in itself tricky. It isn’t simply that films must promote a rosy view of the country. For instance, films which are critical of elements of Chinese society might well be seen as consistent with the party line. Angels Wear White denounces corruption, a problem the party wishes to clamp down on. But on the other hand, the opening film, Youth, by celebrated director Feng Xiaogang saw its distribution suddenly cancelled. The why and the wherefores are unclear. The film is an examination of the gap between the propaganda of an elite dance troupe and the reality of the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979. It’s a tickly subject to say the least and the likelihood is that heightened sensitivity ahead of the party congress — the film was due out in September — led to a higher up pulling the plug. The film still opened the festival however and has secured a UK distribution deal. It is likely a domestic release will follow once the dust has settled. But the affair shows the fragility of everyone’s position. China may well be opening up both to the world and itself, but a foot is on the brake at all times.

And yet the possibilities here are apparent. In the smog at the side of the road, a massive truck is transporting the gigantic blade of a wind turbine for the new wind farms that are opening up. Credit cards are not accepted in almost all the shops and restaurants, but you can pay with your phone using an app. Things are moving fast and intermediary steps can be skipped, but freedom of speech and other basic political and human rights might also fall into the category.

With the collapse of President Trump’s bellicose stance against Chinese trade policy, Xi Jinping has been handed a much broader sphere of influence. The soft power which was so much a part of the US’s political influence across the Pacific has largely been squandered. Not confronting Jinping on trade and human rights during his visit might be understandable diplomatic tact for any other politician. But to heap blame on past administrations for the very tactics of China and then to address the full might of his indignation against business leaders in an APEC speech is a contortion and surrender that the Chinese could never have dared hope for. Jinping subsequent speech in Da Nang was greeted with a far more effusive response. Trump’s speech did feature a couple of belated swipes at China but like many people who don’t read, Trump is under the misapprehension that nobody else does. No one listening to his speech would have heard anything to make them trust him. And by contrast Jinping came across not only as a statesman but as a champion for free trade against the tirades of a protectionist bully.

My view of China on the ground was necessarily partial. Pingyao is Ambleside compared to the international and commercial hubbub of Beijing; and though I had a stopover in the capital there was an ‘orange alert’ which meant the smog was so thick it blocked the world from outside the airport like something from Stephen King’s The Mist. However, what I saw was a country in the process of dynamic change; a country in which there are still undoubtedly enormous challenges to confront and contradictions to resolve, but which — with its Belts and Roads, new football league and film festivals and new prominence on the world stage — is making its presence felt .

John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.com and thestudioexec.com.

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