Chinese propaganda takes over a graffiti wall on London’s Brick Lane

Image from Kris Cheng's Twitter. With permission.

A famous graffiti wall on Brick Lane, an iconic art street in East London, was painted white with red Chinese characters that spell out the 12 “Socialist Core Values” on August 5, 2023. The stunt is common in mainland China, where empty walls are often a medium for political propaganda. 

The incident triggered strong reactions from Tibetan, Mongolian, Hong Kong and mainland Chinese Diaspora communities around the world and sparked a graffiti war in Brick Lane.

The 12 “Socialist Core Values wealth, strength, democracy, civilization, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, the rule of law, patriotism, dedication, integrity and friendship — were put forward by former Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2012 and elaborated by his successor Xi Jinping through the implementation of new policies and laws, and the majority of which, such as online censorship, crackdowns on the private sector, repression on ethnic minorities’ culture, national security laws and measures, etc., are considered oppressive. 

Messages behind the graffiti

Three mainland Chinese students from the Royal College of Art in London are behind the “propaganda graffiti,” and the mastermind is Yique, who justified the action on his Instagram with very abstract terms, such as logocentrism and orientalism, that remind people of the history of Western colonialism:


In London and its freedom, we see logocentrism and how [the West] uses freedom and decolonization to export the commercialization of culture. In the name of freedom and democracy, [the West] manifests itself as a cultural centre. This is the nature of freedom in London. In fact, such freedom is the base of Western Orientalisation of the East. It conceals inequality and exploitation in the form of cultural progress. Let’s wait to see the result as [through this work] we use the socialist [ideological] construction to counteract the illusional freedom of the colonial West.

Australian-Chinese political cartoonist, Badiucao does not find the curator's explanation convincing as the graffiti propaganda destroys the grassroots art of the Tower Hamlets district:

He slammed their disrespectful act with a satirical artwork depicting a panda pissing on a graffiti wall: 

But there are also other readings of the act. X (formerly known as Twitter) Chinese breaking news blogger Teacher Li, for example, thanked the three students for presenting the image of China in such a realistic manner:

我认为这个作品很成功,它真的就像是它的策划人说的那样,让人一秒回到中国。 这一整个行为也是一个很形象,很“中国”的艺术品 那就是当“中国”来了以后,粗暴,不尊重也不考虑他人地将所有的一切灿烂缤纷的文化都一并清除,只留下白底红字的他们自己都没办法践行的24字戒律。 而事实上,中国的文化领域现状就是如此一步步走向无聊的深渊 […] 现在,爱国艺术小留们无意识的行为让这种文化审美以一种不以为耻的方式展现在了世界面前。 这种对中国形象的直观展示是中国政府在youtube和推特上花多少钱投放多少广告都起不到的效果。 任谁看了都要说一声谢谢爱国小留。

I think this is a successful piece of work. As the curator said, the wall brings people to China within a second. Their performance also captures China’s characters: When “China” is present, it erases all the diverse colors and cultures brutally with zero respect. All it leaves behind are 24 red letters on top of a white background, which signify principles they can’t put into practice. In reality, the cultural sector in China is falling into such an abyss. […] Now, the patriotic overseas students unconsciously and shamelessly presented such a kind of aesthetics to the world, the effect much more powerful than the expensive Chinese government's political Ads on Youtube and Twitter for promoting China’s image. I think we should all thank the patriotic overseas students for this. 

A graffiti war

Indeed, the graffiti has invited diaspora communities from Hong Kong, Tibet and mainland China, who have suffered from China’s oppressive policies, to fight back.

At first, the diaspora from Hong Kong and mainland China added characters or images around the 12 core values to subvert their meaning. For example, the Chinese term for patriotism is Ai Guo (愛國) which means love the country, is turned into “the country does not love me back” after adding the Chinese words Bu-Ai-Wo (不愛我) after the character Guo (國). Kris Cheng explained:

Later, after more joined in the graffiti war. Overseas Chinese feminists and LGBTQ+ activists, for example, painted a bleeding vagina and wrote “We Are All Chained Women” and  “patriarchy = totalitarianism” on the wall:

Tibetan and Mongolian activists also spoke out against China’s oppressive ethnic policy: 

Related discussions censored in Mainland China

Back in mainland China, the three overseas students had initially gained some support on social media. For example, Hu Xijin from the state-funded Global Times said in a now-deleted post on Weibo it was good to let the world know that China shares many common values with Western society. Yet, as more and more interpret the act as political satire or the so-called “high-level black” under the disguise of patriotic performance, the web censor has taken down all related discussions, including Hu’s post on August 7.

At the same time, Yique, the curator, issued another statement claiming that he was doxxed by two extreme forces online that threatened his personal and his family’s security. He did not specify which are the two extreme forces, but people believe he refers to mainland Chinese patriots vs anti-China Diaspora. 

Also, on August 7, the Tower District Council stepped in and erased the political graffiti with grey paint. But the graffiti war continues as activists rush to leave protest messages on the wall.  China Deviants, a mainland Chinese diaspora NGO based in London, showed how the Brick Lane looked like on August 11, 2023:


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