April 12, 2013

Photo: Jeffrey Lau

Photo: Jeffrey Lau

Standing in the midst of his Beijing studio, Zhang Bingjian looks around the rows of faces, some hanging on the wall, others piled up en masse in corners, each one a Chinese government official convicted of corruption, and many of whom received the death penalty for their actions; in China white-collar criminals can be sentenced to death if their crime is severe enough.

Over the last few years the 52-year-old artist and filmmaker has created a collection of over 2,000 portraits of corrupt officials, each one painted on an identical pink canvas – “the colour of Chinese money,” Zhang explains.

“The big problem in China right now is that politicians and businessmen wear the same clothes,” he tells the Independent. “This is the root of corruption.”

Every year thousands of government officials in China are convicted of taking bribes or embezzling funds: some experts estimate that corruption costs the country a tenth of all government spending.

Late last month Bo Xilai, the former mayor of Chongqing, a major metropolis in the southwest of China, was convicted of bribery, corruption and abuse of power. He was sentenced to life in prison, a sentence he is likely to appeal.

“I heard an announcement on state television that 3,000 officials had been convicted of corruption in just one year,” Zhang says, recalling the moment he started thinking about his portraits project back in 2009.

“I remember being shocked, a little angry and then confused,” he says now.

“Yet, when I told my friends they weren’t shocked – they said the real number was probably a lot higher.”

According to He Guoqiang, head of China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, over 660,000 officials have been guilty of disciplinary violations in the past five years, with more than 24,000 subsequently transferred to the judicial system for suspected crimes, he told Chinese state media last October.

After hearing about the 3,000 convicted officials, Zhang decided to create what he calls the Hall of Fame, but what others are calling the Wall of Shame.

The portraits, rather than being painted by Zhang, are painted by artists in Dafen, a southern Chinese village known for producing upwards of 50% of the fake oil paintings hung across Europe and the U.S. They are purposefully tacky and cheap looking.

“If you are accepted into an actual Hall of Fame for your achievements you might hire an artist and pay thousands of dollars to get a portrait done.”

“Yet I have one artist who can paint 10-12 Van Gogh self-portraits a day without looking, and they are then sold in places like Walmart. I wanted to make these portraits cheap looking – to show the irony of it.”

From the beginning Zhang knew the project would be open ended, since bribery is still rife across the country.

“We have 2,000 portraits done already, yet in one year in China more officials are convicted than that,” he says.

Zhang’s Hall of Fame includes everyone from village chiefs who have stolen one yuan (10 pence) to leading politicians who have pocketed tens of billions — “It doesn’t matter how much, it is still stolen taxpayer’s money.”

On the edge of each portrait is a stamp of the name, former position, crime and punishment. Many of the stamps read 死刑 (sixing): sentenced to death.

Included are Xu Maiyong and Jiang Renjie, two former vice-mayors put to death last year for embezzling millions, as well as Zheng Xiaoyu, a former head of the State Food and Drug Administration executed in 2007 for taking bribes – he allegedly accepted more than RMB 6.5 million (£640,000) in bribes to approve hundreds of drugs.

“If I did this 20 years ago I would be in jail,” Zhang says, matter-of-factly, of the project.

He manages to avoid excess trouble by only including officials convicted by Chinese courts.

“Everyone I include must be officially prosecuted; otherwise I will get in a lot of trouble. I am doing this the right thing. I am not crossing the line but I am walking on the edge.

Corruption has become a big topic in China this year. In addition to Bo Xilai’s trial, which became the country’s biggest political scandal in decades, China’s new Premier, Xi Jinping, launched an anti-corruption and graft campaign soon after taking office late last year.

An anti-corruption website, launched by the government’s disciplinary agency at the beginning of September, has received an average of 760 tip-offs a day, according to the state-run People’s Daily, with over 15,000 reports between September 2 and 21.

Regarding the current political machinations, Zhang is uncertain.

“There is no transparency so I can’t make a comment – and that is the problem. I am not a policeman; I don’t belong to the anti-corruption bureau hunting down these people. I simply raise awareness of the issue and make people think through my art.”

It is not simply a problem of overt corruption, however, but also the spending of public money.

In 2010 a small town in Sichuan became one of the first to release its budget to the public. The details were not pretty: they showed that 65% of local government spending had gone to accommodating and entertaining officials.

Says Zhang: “You go to government headquarters and inside it is all marble, like a 5-star hotel. There are huge offices – one guy has an office large enough for five. This is not corruption, it is just government spending without the permission from the people who pay tax.”

“Corruption is caused by the system, it is like a disease,” he says, before adding: “There are no 100% clean places in the world – in England some politicians and policemen are also corrupt.”

The sheer scale of the collection – 2,000 paintings and growing – means that Zhang needs a large space to exhibit if he wants to show all of the works together. So far, however, galleries in Beijing and other major Chinese cities have not shown any interest in exhibiting the collection: “I don’t think they want to touch it – to get in trouble,” he speculates.

This article was originally commissioned by The Independent, but fell through the cracks of editorial changes. I’m posting it here for the first time.