Category Archives: Arts & Culture

Dream Factory Or Conspiracymonger?

Back in 2018, GQ, a US men’s magazine published by Conde Nast, ran an article raising the question of whether the Chinese government might be behind a series of thefts of Chinese antiquities from European museums since 2010.

The article was speculative, and its evidence circumstantial. It should also be noted that it was well reported. The Beijing-based author talked to Chinese sources and offered other plausible explanations for the series of museum robberies, including patriotic collectors finding ways to acquire items and return them to China.

Even if the article came to no very definite conclusion, it waved a finger generally in the direction of an officially inspired effort to regain looted artefacts. That would be in line with Beijing’s long-standing position that any cultural artefacts that have been removed abroad belong to China, regardless of who outside the country claims ownership, and should be returned. The National Cultural Heritage Administration is tasked with such reclamation work.

However, the dotted line that led to the implication of government sponsorship for the thefts was a research trip to international museums the year before the thefts started by a team from the China Poly Group, a state-owned enterprise under the supervision of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, which is a State Council agency.

China Poly combines the unlikely businesses of acting as an international arms seller for China’s defence industry and running the world’s third-largest art auction house. However, it has always played a role in locating and returning Chinese antiquities that have found their way out into the world.

When the article was published, the suggestion that the government had dispatched ‘a treasure-hunting delegation’ to find looted Chinese art caused outrage, with China Poly, refuting the allegations and threatening to sue Conde Nast. There is no record this Bystander can find of that happening, and the issue seemed to fade away.

However, the article is now being turned into a Hollywood movie called The Great Chinese Art Heist. The film will focus on a 2015 robbery of 15 pieces from Fontainebleau, the former royal chateau near Paris. The bulk of the collection there had been taken from China by French soldiers in 1860 when Beijing’s Old Summer Palace was sacked.

That being the subject of a film alone would touch a nerve in China. However, the word from Hollywood is that ‘it was the Chinese government that bankrolled it’ will be the dominant plotline.

Whether that turns out to be the case on not, it has already sparked renewed outrage in China, with social media buzzing with accusations that the movie is another Western ploy to discredit the country. The company producing the film, Warner Bros. has been widely accused of insulting China.

The director will be Jon Chu, who directed the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians. That film’s success makes it likely that The Great Chinese Art Heist will get a high-profile launch.

Yet the sequel this Bystander is now awaiting is to the hack of Sony Pictures in 2014 after the film studio upset North Korea with a movie that included the fictional assassination of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

Warner Bros is part of a media assets spin-out that its parent company, AT&T, is currently undertaking. WarnerMedia is to be merged with another media company, Discovery, which owns Conde Nast. The merged company will be called Warner Bros. Discovery, with the tagline “The stuff dreams are made from”. This deal is due to be completed next year.

The potential cyber nightmares are endless. A ransomware attack of ambiguous attribution between signing and closing the deal to fund an art repurchase fund, perhaps? Or a deepfake version of The Great Chinese Art Heist with an alternative plotline that it was all planned in Ft Detrick?

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China Regains Top Spot In Fine-Art Auctions

Fine art sales at auction by leading countries, 2016-2020 Source: Artnet Intelligence Report, Spring 2021

THIS BYSTANDER GLEANS another alternative indicator of China’s post-pandemic economic recovery from the world of fine art auctions.

Last year, the hammer fell on $10.1 billion worth of art sales worldwide, almost 25% less than in 2019 and the lowest total in more than a decade, according to the Artnet Intelligence Report, from which the chart above is taken.

However, the fall in fine-art auction sales in China was a mere 0.1%. By comparison, in the United States, the fall was 35%. The rebound in sales in China was notably robust in the second half of the year as life returned to something approaching normal.

It helped that China was fecund in creating potential buyers last year. It created around five new billionaires a week on average, according to our back of the envelope calculation, taking its total to 878 versus 650 in the United States.

Chinese art buyers also favour auctions, whereas US billionaires prefer the anonymity of private sales. The upshot is that China overtook the United States and returned to being the largest fine-art auction market in the world at $3.4 billion in sales, a position it relinquished to the United States in 2017.

Chinese artists dominated sales of contemporary art (that by artists born between 1945 and 1974). They accounted for 40% of the contemporary artworks that attracted the highest bids at auction last year, led by Zeng Fanzhi, whose Mask Series, No. 6 sold for $23.3 million.

Half of the best selling works by contemporary artists went under the hammer in China, a level of demand, the ArtNet report says, not seen since just before the 2008 global financial crisis, when the record price for a work by a contemporary Chinese artist — a piece also by Zeng, as it happens — was a mere $9.5 million.

Then the leading auction houses held specialised sales for the category in New York. Now the market is firmly rooted in Asia — another alternative indicated of a changing global economy.

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Fan Faces Fine

FAN BINGBING, THE film star not seen in public since June, has been fined 883 million yuan ($130 million) for tax evasion and other offences, state media says. She will avoid criminal charges and prison time if she pays up by a year-end deadline.

Unconfirmed reports in Hong Kong said she has also been banned from working as an actress for three years. It would be unusually for such a ban to be announced by authorities in the absence of a conviction.

A contrite posting appeared on Fan’s Weibo account today, although there is still no indication of her whereabouts.

Her agent remains in detention as a broad investigation into entertainment celebrities’ tax affairs continues. Fan was the highest earning Chinese celebrity last year with an income of 300 million yuan, according to Forbes magazine’s reckoning.

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China’s Film Industry Loses A Fan

IT WOULD NOT be too idle speculation to connect the non-appearance in public of the film star Fan Bingbing these many weeks to the suggestion that the anti-corruption crackdown has reached the heart of the media and entertainment industries.

Her studio as denied the accusation that Fan was using what is known in the trade as ‘yin-and-yang’ contracts — two versions of the contract for an engagement of which the one showing the lower fee is the one intended for the taxman. Their use has been widespread in real estate transactions for at least a decade, not that that makes them any less illegal.

There is, it should be said, no hard evidence either way on which to judge the scuttlebutt that tax evasion was Fan’s ‘crime’, for which, some reports say, she has been arrested, while others suggest, less credibly, that she has fled to the United States to seek asylum. Fan’s public silence would, however, seem to tell its own story.

China’s highest-paid actress did, however, score zero on a recently released ranking of entertainers based on their social responsibility scores. Those can be regarded as a precursor to the ‘social credit’ system now being trialled with the aim of introducing it nationwide by 2020. Low scores could mean for an actor denial of the state licenses they need to work, and provide an easy excuse to film and TV programme makers not to offer parts.

Fan has already been dropped by sponsors, a sure sign she has fallen out of favour with authorities.

Catching tigers as well as flies is a characteristic of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. In June, authorities put limits on the pay of star actors, in part to crack down on tax evasion but also as part of the broader campaign against conspicuous wealth. The pay of actors in Chinese films and TV programmes was capped at 40% of the total production costs, with lead actors limited to 70% of the actors’ pool.

Authorities are also worried about the impact of stars on young Chinese, who are at risk, they fear, of chasing celebrity and “distorted social values” — for which read Western values — rather than following the Party endorsed pursuit Chinese values.

TV dramas last year were instructed to ‘enhance people’s cultural taste’ and ‘strengthen spiritual civilisation’ — strictures that came with a new set of rules governing the programmes’ content.

Reviving Chinese culture is a core strand of President Xi Jinping’s vision of ‘’the Chinese dream’, as is a very particular view of how China will project itself abroad through Chinese values.

The arts have long been seen as a part of the Party’s ideological leadership, with artists, in all realms of the arts, expected to create works that are not only artistic but also politically inspiring. Those are to serve to promote socialist values in line with the Party’s agenda.

Artistic dissent can have no place in that, much as dissent is being cracked down on in a variety of areas from the social sciences to civil society.

The Beijing Trade Association for Performances, which in 2014 took a leading role in the authorities’ crackdown on performing artists alleged to be involved with drug-taking and prostitution, now says it will ‘purify’ the city’s entertainment and performance sector and guide artists towards ‘core socialist values’.

The entertainment industry poses a particular problem in that fandom around TV, movie and music stars creates a potential point of political power that is youth-based, unpredictable and weakly subject to Party control, all characteristics for which the Party does not care.

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Protecting China’s New Economy

IF EVER THERE was an example of the West fighting the last war, it is over whether China is a ‘market economy’ in the eyes of the European Union. European steelmakers have been on the streets of Europe to support the case that it isn’t. China, however, has moved on to protecting its new economy.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in concert with the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) has published new rules for internet content providers. These set strict new guidelines for what can be published online, and what content—and which publishers—require prior approval from authorities.

“Sino-foreign joint ventures, Sino-foreign cooperative ventures, and foreign business units shall not engage in online publishing services,” the rules say, adding that any ‘online publication service units’ need to get prior approval from SARFT if they want to cooperate on a project with any foreign company, joint venture, or individual.

All content providers will also be required to host their data on local servers and be forbidden to store it on related servers and storage devices outside China.

The initial reaction outside China has been to see this as part of the strengthening central control over the media, and the creative industries generally, in line with President Xi Jinping’s broader centralization of authority and notions of soft power. Xi has just completed an inspection tour of leading state media to reinforce the message that they are there to be an instrument of the Party.

That, in itself, is nothing new, even if the emphasis on Chinese media gaining a louder voice on the international stage and “telling China’s story well” is.  However, the bluntness with which Xi underscored that state news media must “work to protect the Party’s authority and unity” and be the government and Party’s “publicity front” has not been heard for some time. Xi’s use of the word ‘struggle’ in the press’s role particularly harkens back to earlier times.

Western news providers such as Thomson Reuters, Dow Jones, Bloomberg, the Financial Times, and the New York Times are likely targets of the new rules. But so, too, are some of the fast growing non-state media companies that have flourished online through providing entertainment. The Party now wants to bring such outlets more under its sway in the way that traditional non-party media are circumscribed.

In the same vein, further targets include foreign game companies like Sony and Microsoft, and Hollywood studios and distributors that might introduce subversive—or even just foreign—ideas into the country through films, TV shows and other works of popular art.

However, the widely overlooked significance of the new rules is that they do not just tightly constrain China as a market for foreign news outlets, publishers and entertainment companies. They apply to all providers of online content.

That could include payments and e-commerce companies. Any foreign firm, such as Apple, Amazon or Alphabet (née Google), that might challenge China’s entrenched e-commerce giants is at risk.

That fits well with the notions of online national sovereignty that Xi outlined last December during a defense of online censorship in a speech to the Global Internet Conference, a meeting of a couple of dozen countries convened by China in Wuzhen in Zhejiang province.

As ever, how Chinese authorities implement the new rules — and how selectively — will determine how restrictive they are — and who gets restricted. Chinese laws are usually vague and broad to that end, if always with laser-focused purpose.

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Li Ruigang: Kicking On With Soft Power

Li Ruigang, Founding Chairman, CMC Capital Partners, seen at a World Economic Forum meeting in Dalian, September 11, 2015. Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Benedikt Von Loebell. Licenced under Creative Commons.LI RUIGANG IS one of those particular Chinese combinations of government official, Party insider and entrepreneur — and perhaps a proto manifestation of the statist-corporatist economy that President Xi Jinping sees as China’s future.

In the 2000s, a 30s-something Li, though a state official who had started out with a degree in journalism and a job as a reporter on a local Shanghai TV station, was a pioneer in China’s fledgling media market. Rising rapidly through the programming ranks, he brought foreign programming and popular international TV formats to the staid, insular world of state broadcasting. He also married TV and radio with online and mobile media, riding the emerging wave of  young newly affluent Chinese going online.

As president of Shanghai Media Corp., a state broadcaster formed in 2002 when the city’s television and radio stations merged, he turned a municipal broadcaster into a national media powerhouse. His vision of popular programming allied to mastery of the crease where global popular culture meets Chinese mass propaganda meant that even staid national state broadcaster CCTV could not ignore SMC’s transforming influence.

In western media terms, he was a meld of such media moguls as News Corps’ Rupert Murdoch and Viacom’s Sumner Redstone, both of whom Li numbers as friends. As the photo above indicates, he now moves in that world of the global great, good and successful.

By 2009, Li had overseen a fourfold increase in SMC’s revenue to $1.2 billion. That year, he founded China Media Capital Holdings (CMC), a state-backed Shanghai-based private equity and venture capital firm specializing in cultural, media and entertainment investments inside and outside China. At the same time, he started to scale back his work at SMC, though he would not finally cut formal ties until this year.

Li’s motives for switching from state official to state-backed venture capitalist are complex. Not all his programming deals with foreign media companies panned out. A public sale of SMC shares planned for 2009 was put on ice following the 2008 global financial crisis. Other political constraints on SMC’s freedom to do deals with foreign partners started to chafe.

But Li was not railing against the system. In 2011, when he stepped down from full-time management at SMC, he would become deputy Party chief in Shanghai. He retained the confidence of his political superiors that he could be trusted in the fast evolving world of media, even as the soft power of cultural assets became more of a national concern.

Among some of CMC’s recent investments are:

  • a deal to develop a Legoland amusement park outside Shanghai;
  • a joint venture with Warner Bros to co-produce Chinese-language films (DreamWorks Animation is already a JV partner. Kung Fu Panda 3 is the result of that); and
  • with Jack Ma’s Alibaba and Tencent, a company to develop InternetTV.

CMC’s latest deal, announced this week, is a $400 million 13% stake in City Football Group. CFG is the holding company owned by Sheihk Mansour from the United Arab Emirates for English professional football club, Manchester City FC, its U.S. sibling, New York City FC, its Australian cousin Melbourne City FC and a stake in Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos.

Li is following another Chinese entrepreneur, Wang Jianlin, founder of the property group Dalian Wanda, in investing in European professional sports. Both men have an eye to exploiting the Chinese TV market for watching the teams’ games, buying their merchandise and learning the ropes of what is becoming an increasingly lucrative part of the media business.

Even back in his SMC days, Li understood the importance for broadcaster of both creating and owning content and having the means to distribute it.

CMC already owns a slate of sports media rights, including those for Chinese Super League. It blew away CCTV for those with a spectacular five-year 8 billion yuan ($1.3 billion) bid in October; previously the rights had sold for 50 million yuan a year.

The Manchester City deal might also prove an avenue for improving the woeful standard of the game within China. President Xi would love for the country to hold its head high as a world footballing power. China ranks 84th in Fifa’s global rankings for national teams and is not even number one in Asia. South Korea is 48th and Japan 50th.

Xi would also like China to host a World Cup, as South Korea and Japan have already done. A World Cup final in Beijing would, like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, be another sign of China’s emergence on the world stage.

Li’s deal, reportedly two years in the making, now seems it make it clear why Xi chose to visit the Manchester City club during his recent state visit to England.

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An Artistic Snapshot Of China’s Slowing Growth

Global total sales value of Chinese art and antiques, 2011-14

THE LATEST ANNUAL survey of the Chinese art market by artnet, a leading art market and auction company based in New York, provides another alternative indicator of China’s slowing growth.

Although art is considered an alternative asset class by financial investors and the Chinese art market experienced the sort of giddy spike in prices in 2011 that would not have looked out of place on the Shanghai stock exchange before the recent collapse of equity prices, this Bystander would not want to extend the metaphor too far.

For one, there has been a shortage of high-quality, high-priced works going under the hammer. Nor should the effect of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign on conspicuous consumption be overlooked. Overall luxury spending contracted for the first time in several years last year.

Authorities’ attention has been switching from the the personal luxuries segments (fine wines and spirits, jewelry and cars) to property and, increasingly, art. Gifts of antiques, calligraphy and paintings to officials can now be deemed as bribes. It has long been suspected that art auctions have provided a way to ‘launder’ bribes with ‘gifts’ being subsequently sold at auction at inflated prices.

Yet there are some straws to be taken from the 2014 art-sales figures. Auction sales in mainland China (the overwhelming majority of art sales in the country) declined 9% year-on-year to $5 .5 billion, a 40% fall in value in U.S. dollar terms since the market’s 2011peak. However, sales outside China at $2.3 billion in 2014 ($1.8 billion of which were made in Hong Kong) were barely changed from the previous year.

That suggests that it is domestic Chinese buyers who for reasons of prudence or necessity are keeping their cash in their wallets.

That all said, as the report notes and is true the world round, only a tiny portion of China’s population has the financial means to engage with the art market on an active or regular basis so any broad economic conclusions should be approached with circumspection.

What did catch our eye, however, was that up to 63% of all lots sold for more than 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) last year were left unpaid or only partially paid. This non-payment rate is up 22% from 2013 and points to a credit pinch.

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Is The Mona Lisa Chinese?

WAS THE MOTHER of the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci Chinese and is she the model for Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with her famously inscrutable smile? Hong Kong-based Italian writer and historian Angelo Paratico says yes on both counts.

In a forthcoming book Paratico lays out a case that Leonardo’s mother, Caterina, was a slave brought from China to the household of one of the Florentine patrons of Leonardo’s father, a notary, and that the artist was the issue of their union.

Paratico’s contention rests on some tenuous joining of circumstantial dots. He has not uncovered new documentary evidence, at least not on the basis of the report in the South China Morning Post.

The Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud suggested more than a century ago that the Mona Lisa was a portrait of Leonardo’s mother and more recent scholarship has cast doubt on the long-standing story that she was a peasant woman from the town of Vinci near Florence, suggesting instead that she was a household slave, but from the Arabian not the Oriental world.

The Renaissance city-states of what is the modern day Italy were at the end of the overland and maritime trade routes from Cathay and the Spice Islands via Arabia, Central Asia, and India. They were polyglot places and awash with all sorts.

That Leonardo’s mother was a slave brought from the east is not implausible. However, the Mona Lisa is widely believed to be a depiction of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine merchant. Perhaps the particular truth will always remain as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s smile.

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Western Auction Houses’ Unlikely Role In Promoting China’s Soft Power

MOVIES GET MOST of the popular attention when it comes to the cultural front in China’s drive to raise its global soft power. But we are reminded today of the role fine art and antiques can play, and of the need for the country’s artists to establish themselves as international brands.

Last year, China accounted for nearly one quarter of the $61 billion global art market, according to the TEFAF Art Market Report. Its $15 billion of sales were second only to those of America artists. Two thirds of Chinese artists’ sales came at auction, with more than two-thirds of those sales taking place within the country.

Art Net, an online auction and arts news site based in New York, has now totted up which modern and contemporary Chinese artists have been the biggest money spinners at auction over the past three and a half years. The bigger the sale; the higher the international profile.

Topping its list is the late Wu Guanzhong, whose landscapes have given him the title of the father of modern Chinese painting and whose works have realized $510 million over the period under review, including the $23.5 million sale of a 1973 oil on paper landscape, the most expensive individual work. Zao Wou-Ki, the French-Chinese abstract artist who died last year, is second with auction sales of $417.6 million. Third is the highest ranked living Chinese artist, Zeng Fanzhi, at $226 million.

Art Net also notes that the international auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, are accounting for an increasing share of sales. Local salesrooms such as Beijing A&F Auction, Poly International and, in Taipei, Ravenel are being squeezed out — further evidence that, as the U.S. has found with Hollywood, the market may be a more powerful arm of cultural diplomacy than state-sponsored organisations such as the Confucius Institute.

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