Isaac Mao / Robin Peckham

I’m in the process of editing a short piece based on last November’s -empyre- online forum on Media Arts in China, to be published in Contemporary Art & Investment Magazine in the near future. In the process I was reminded of an interesting comment made by Robin Peckham, one of the participants, referring back to an interview he had done with Isaac Mao about the concept of Sharism (the full interview can be found here). The quote is interesting to me because of current attitudes to privacy in the Chinese context, current events, and how this affects everyday life.

RP: […] how does privacy fit in with the context of Sharism?

IM: I think privacy is becoming more important. Sharism gives people a better sense of the social spectrum. Previously, we only had two polar modes: private and public, and of course we don’t like our private things to become public. However, we are now living in a spectrum that we never sensed before. Some things are private at some times, but at others they are not, depending on the context or who we are with. This is a spectrum that we can manage and come to consensus on what kind of information we can share or don’t like to share. Sometimes I share different things to different people. It’s a kind of strategy. We intuitively manage privacy now. Of course sometimes I don’t like to share my private phone number and private address in some places, like perhaps in China. But in other countries it may be different, depending on cultural difference or safety.

But we are seeing changes. In China, many dissidents and activists are open up their personal information. Why? Because previously they just wanted to close it down to protect themselves without being tracked by the government. Someone might want people to know his position so he can do things secretly. But now many are opening up this information because they see the social power. Once they’ve opened up their position, home phone, and travel plans, more people in the cloud know where they are at the same time as the authorities. He is protected even as he is tracked. This has happened over the past two years.

China’s urban surface

Looking out of the window of my bus into central Beijing, I can see a lot of rebuilding going on. This is of course nothing new – I’ve never really seen a lull since I came to China two years ago. But there seems an added urgency now, perhaps driven by the 1 October National Day celebrations just around the corner.

Last year there was a major effort to clean up Beijing’s image in time for the Olympics. This was very much for the benefit of the visitors coming to experience China and Beijing as host for the Games. But this time, we have what an internal affair, the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the Republic, and the collective effort has in many ways been refined and expanded from last year’s dry run.

Maybe because time is running out to complete building projects, at this point there is a noticeable concentration of effort going into the borders of the building sites, the edges between the sites and the public areas, in an effort to polish the surfaces of China’s ubiquitous piles of rubble. This concentration is at its height at building sites along the main roads and gets progressively diluted according to the hierarchy of streets, becoming less intense as you move from dajie, to xiaojie, to the alleys and hutongs.

The criteria for effort seems to be dependent on what is public and private space, and is consequently redefining what is public and private. “Public” and “private” seems to be defined by visibility – if you can see it from the road, it’s public, and these “public” areas are seen as part of the State’s responsibility for its image, and are taken under the State’s wing as places which are vulnerable to tidying up.

So new walls and surfaces are being built to hide the messy bits, which through the act of redefining of public and private, become private, invisible places, inside the public, visible boundaries.