Chinese explore Internet freedom

High technology and a Chinese cultural renaissance are giving birth to the country's first digital artists. And as fervent interest in computers spreads, young Chinese painters are starting to post electronic artworks on the world-wide gallery that the Web is fostering.

"Computers are the newest tool being used by Chinese artists," says Sun Cong, an instructor at the Beijing-based Central Academy of Art. "The Internet is becoming a global forum for us to exchange ideas and art with the rest of the world."

PC sales and Internet surfing, while still rare in the hinterlands, are exploding in China's major cities. An estimated 8.9 million Chinese now use the Internet, and the figure is expected to continue to skyrocket.

China's dotcom art industry is likely to expand as a new generation of tech-savvy painters and designers goes online. The Central Academy just completed its first computer-art exhibition "in order to boost the takeoff of digital artists across China," says Xu Jia, a spokeswoman. The academy, China's foremost art school, is often at the crest of new waves in Chinese art.

Electronic artist and Web traveler Zhao Yu is a third-year graphic-design student. "The Web is now bringing us much closer to Internet youths in the West," Mr. Zhao says. "We hope we can use the digital revolution to help modernize and globalize Chinese culture."

That goal would have seemed unimaginable during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong virtually sealed off China's borders as his Red Guard stormtroopers declared war on traditional Chinese culture. The only artists to survive relatively unscathed were those put to work in the propaganda machine, churning out millions of Mao statues, portraits, and posters.

But as China's revolutionary founders step off the political stage, they are being replaced by a new generation of technocratic leaders easing controls on the arts. The Communist Party still jails democracy activists, human rights monitors, and religious figures who try to use the Internet to publish their messages. And late last month it became a crime to discuss "state secrets" on the Web. Yet many restrictions on nonpolitical speech and art are being lifted.

Some conservative artists are still turning out portraits of China's communist leaders or socialist-realist sculptures glorifying the Red Army, but many more young painters are producing pop or commercial art.

Chinese-run Web sites like artscenechina.com and newchinese art.com are beginning to bring the country's increasingly world-wise talent to the Web market.

"Some people still say that opening China completely could allow Western pop culture to destroy the Chinese arts," says Zhao. "But that thinking is absolutely wrong. The Internet and digital technology are giving us the tools to revitalize Chinese culture so that it can compete and interact on the world stage."

Zhao's "Made in 2000" features mirror images of an imperial dragon, one traditional and one digital, connected by timeline arrows, film frames, and cyber-characters. "I'm trying to find a digital bridge between the two," he explains.

"The Internet is opening new worlds and bringing new freedoms to people in the West, and the same process is now sweeping across China," adds artist Wang Yang.

One of the biggest attention-grabbers at the exhibit focused on NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia to enforce an evolving notion of international human rights standards.

"New World Order at the Speed of a Bullet" features golden and Day-Glo uranium bullets wrapped in the orange-and-clear plastic of medicine packaging, with a tiny American flag above the words: "Made in USA."

"It seems that the West now wants to dispense bullets to cure the humanitarian ills of the world," says Sun Cong. Ms. Sun designed the work last May, just after NATO warplanes dropped five bombs on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Sun says she is posting "New World Order" on the Internet to get her antiwar message across, not just to Chinese, but to Netizens everywhere who want to see a new world peace. "There is no Chinese frame around my painting, just as there are no national borders on the Internet," she says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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