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China blog
29 January 2015 Last updated at 17:52

Graffiti, demolition and angst in Shanghai

The BBC's John Sudworth: "The art... evokes a sense of sadness"

Demolition in China is often a sensitive, political subject, touching on the relative powerlessness of local residents in the face of omnipotent local officials.

And while Shanghai has retained more of its old architecture than many Chinese cities, the relentless pace of economic development has still swept large parts of it away.

A few months ago, colourful, poignant paintings began to appear amid the rubble on at least two building sites.

They're the work of French graffiti artist Julien Malland and Chinese artist Shi Zheng.

They probably would have gone largely unnoticed - however, a few days ago some of the images were published in a Chinese newspaper, and they went viral.

Chinese artist Shi Zheng Paintings by Shi Zheng (R) began appearing on Shanghai walls last month
French artist Julien Malland in Shanghai Frenchman Julien Malland has also been covering Shanghai's walls
Image of a child on a Shanghai wall Their images often feature children and evoke a sense of sadness
Painted-over image of a child on a Shanghai wall However, after the publicity, their images were swiftly painted over or destroyed

The art appeared to resonate with many members of the public, evoking a sense of sadness for something that's been lost amid China's decades-long construction boom.

Children appear frequently in the work, lovingly clutching small representations of their homes to their chests, or wearing them, like bags, on their backs.

The publicity, though, attracted dozens of curious visitors and amateur photographers to one of the demolition sites in Shanghai's Jing'an district.

BBC China Blog

The BBC China blog is where our teams across the country will provide a flavour of their latest insights.

We'll focus on the new and newsworthy, but also use our journalists' expertise to shine fresh light on China's remarkable transformations and upheavals.

Most of the posts will be written or filmed by journalists in our main bureau, in Beijing, or in our other bases in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Please let us know what you think and send us your ideas. You can also use #BBCChinablog to keep up to date with our reports via Twitter.

Even soon-to-be-married couples turned up, wanting to use the paintings as backdrops for their wedding photos.

That, it seems, prompted the authorities to act.

'Evoking the past'

Citing safety concerns, the district government ordered the paintings to be removed, an order that was quickly carried out.

The art has now been painted over or chiselled away from the plaster, prompting an angry public outcry.

Some internet users seem less than convinced by the safety argument, and have been asking why, as the images were all soon to be destroyed anyway, they could not have been left a little while longer.

State media has been covering the debate, quoting a member of Shanghai's People's Political Consultative Conference, Dai Jianguo, as saying that a bit of careful management - he suggested a requirement that visitors wear hard-hats - would have allowed the public to continue to enjoy the images.

"They brought people back to the past and evoked memories about the old houses," he said.

And anyway, some of those old houses that found themselves inadvertently in the middle of the open-air art gallery still have people living in them.

Image of a girl on a Shanghai wall Elsewhere in Shanghai, similar images have been appearing...
Covered over image of a girl on a Shanghai wall ...and disappearing

As the walls are being torn down around them, they are the "last-standers", a common site on Chinese demolition sites as a few die-hard residents hold on.

Often with red flags flying, they stay, either in protest over the homes they don't want to lose, or simply in the hope of winning better rates of compensation.

The artwork was not overtly political, but given the sensitive context to development in China, it did have a certain edginess.

And its removal highlights a difficulty faced by authoritarian governments anywhere.

Even a decision that may well be in the interests of public safety risks being interpreted as, well, authoritarian.

The case against Pu Zhiqiang

Pu Zhiqiang (C), the lawyer for Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, talks to the media at the artist's studio in Beijing on November 14, 2011. Pu Zhiqiang was famous for his eloquence in the courtroom

Before his detention last May, Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang often posted his thoughts online.

Between 2012 and 2014, Mr Pu wrote thousands of dispatches on weibo, China's version of Twitter.

Now just 28 of those messages could be used by the government to put Pu Zhiqiang behind bars for a very long time.

Mr Pu was once a towering presence in Chinese courtrooms, garnering admiration for his spirited defence of famous dissidents, including the artist Ai Weiwei, and the downtrodden, including poor farmers fighting rural corruption.

He was famous for his eloquence, sometimes citing classical Chinese poetry in the courtroom.

'Telling lies'

But Pu Zhiqiang's blunt weibo messages, many of them expressing frustration with the ruling Chinese Communist Party, are forming the state's case against him.

Police supplied a short list to Pu Zhiqiang's lawyer, Mo Shaoping.

"From top to bottom, the Communist Party can't get through a single day without telling lies," he posted on 24 July, 2012.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (L) stands with his lawyer Pu Zhiqiang as he leaves for court in Beijing on July 20, 2012. Mr Pu (right) defended Chinese artist Ai Weiwei against Beijing

A few months earlier, on 5 February 2012, he wrote: "We should give Liaoning province and Shandong province to Japan, give some land in the south to Vietnam.

"Control of Beijing can be handed directly over to Washington. I'm willing to guide our guests to these places. As long as I can live better than I am now, I'll be satisfied".

Other messages criticise the Chinese government's policies towards Uighurs, the mainly Muslim minority living in Xinjiang in China's far west.

"They claim Xinjiang belongs to China. So they shouldn't treat it like a colony. Don't be a predator and a conqueror. You treat them as your enemy," he wrote on 7 May 2014, referring to strict government restrictions placed on Uighurs.

"These are ridiculous policies."

Soon after posting that message, Pu Zhiqiang was taken away by the police.

Freedom of speech

Mr Pu has been charged with creating a disturbance, inciting ethnic hatred and separatism.

BBC China Blog

The BBC China blog is where our teams across the country will provide a flavour of their latest insights.

We'll focus on the new and newsworthy, but also use our journalists' expertise to shine fresh light on China's remarkable transformations and upheavals.

Most of the posts will be written or filmed by journalists in our main bureau, in Beijing, or in our other bases in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Please let us know what you think and send us your ideas. You can also use #BBCChinablog to keep up to date with our reports via Twitter.

After an initial investigation, prosecutors referred the case back to the police, citing a lack of evidence. Pu Zhiqiang could be sitting in prison indefinitely.

Mr Pu admitted to his lawyer that he clearly remembers writing most of the messages on the list, though both men deny Mr Pu's online musings constitute a crime.

"This case is very important," Mo Shaoping explains. "It is about lawyers' basic rights, but it's also about the freedom of speech that concerns every citizen of China.

"The Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of speech for every citizen."

There is little hope that Pu Zhiqiang will walk free. Dozens of human rights lawyers have been prosecuted in recent years, part of a crackdown on human rights advocates since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power.

Two weeks ago, Mr Pu celebrated his 50th birthday behind bars. Presumably, it was a quiet day. Mr Pu has not seen his wife or young son since he was taken away.

Long wait

However, his lawyer says that his client's living conditions have improved.

Protesters holding pictures of Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang march to the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong on May 14, 2014 asking for his release following his arrest in Beijing. Protesters in Hong Kong demanded Mr Pu's release after he was arrested in Beijing

He sleeps in a room with 20 or 30 others," Mr Mo explains. "The guards look after him though; they gave him a thick blanket to place on the floor to sleep on, instead of a wooden board, like the other prisoners."

For months after Pu Zhiqiang was first detained, he was subjected to hours of intense questioning every day.

However, now that part of the investigation seems to have come to an end, leaving Mr Pu with more time to rest.

He spends his time reading whatever books are available in prison, including legal textbooks and the Bible.

In a poetic twist, the most recent book he finished: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's classic novel 100 Years of Solitude.

Chinese man's rare stem cell match

Jiang Yongfeng: 'I hope the little boy will get better again and lead a good life'

It's an astonishing act of human generosity - one man donating his stem cells to a total stranger living on the other side of the world.

A man working as a driver in Shanghai registered for a stem cell registration drive through his workplace, thinking little would come of it. Shortly after, he received word that his stem cells had been matched, to a boy in England. The needy recipient is just seven years old.

The driver, Jiang Yongfeng, agreed to the donation without hesitation.

"I was very surprised. I was so excited to get a match so soon. Fate was knocking on my door," he says. "When I learned the boy was only born in 2007, I was even more confident I made the right decision."

It's a good thing Mr Jiang was so eager. Those needing stem cell transplants to treat cancer or other immune diseases must find a donor with near identical genes. In reality, that means the matched pair must have the same ethnic background so the immune cells of the donor and recipient work in tandem.

That small percentage makes the long-distance match between Jiang Yongfeng and the little boy something akin to a medical miracle.

The little boy receiving Jiang's donation is of Chinese heritage. He's lucky that Mr Jiang gave a saliva sample in order to sign up for the stem cell registry, since relatively few in China have signed up for the scheme. Chinese people make up approximately 20% of the world's population, but only 4% of people on the global stem cell registry are of Chinese origin, explains the OtherHalf Chinese Stem Cell Initiative.

Jiang Yongfeng undergoes procedure to remove stem cells The donation process was relatively painless for Mr Jiang

A match between someone living inside China and another living outside China's borders is particularly rare, explains Dr Zhang Yi from the Shanghai division of the Chinese Red Cross, the organisation managing the donation.

"There are fewer people of Chinese origin in European and American countries, so most matches are within China," says Dr Zhang. "We have found only 320 matches using the Shanghai database, out of 13,700 potential donors."

No negative effects

The donation experience was relatively painless for Jiang Yongfeng, the driver.

Some are still required to donate stem cells by extracting bone marrow, a more complex procedure that uses a needle to withdraw cells in the marrow directly from a donor's pelvic bone. However, Mr Jiang was able to use a different method that extracts cells using a lengthy blood transfusion. He flew to Beijing a few days before the procedure to receive injections into his blood that would "activate" the stem cells.

He was then hooked up to a transfusion machine for three hours, while the healthy stem cells were extracted from his blood system. It's unlikely that Mr Jiang will experience any negative health effects from the procedure.

Usually donors and recipients do not meet, the Red Cross says, because the patient often has recurring illnesses. In the past, if recipients met donors directly, they sometimes pressured them to donate stem cells again if their illness resurfaced.

Does Jiang Yongfeng mind that he doesn't even know the little boy's name? No, he shrugs.

"I just want the procedure to be done as soon as possible so they can send my cells back to the UK and help the little kid recover as soon as possible.

"I hope he can be brave and strong and he can live a good life."

China bears down on 'cliques'

18th party congress china State-run news agency Xinhua ran an article identifying three cliques of senior bureaucrats

The Chinese Communist Party acknowledges the existence of dangerous cliques.

It is a rare public admission of the existence of factions within a Communist Party which has, for decades, preferred to project a façade of unbreakable unity.

An editorial in Monday's flagship newspaper, The People's Daily, says cliques are akin to parasites and are "harmful for both the country and the people."

The cliques in question are, it is suggested, intimately linked to the rampant and widespread corruption which is, of course, the target of President Xi Jinping's much-vaunted crackdown.

"Some cliques of officials are, in fact, parasitic relationships for the conveying of benefits," the editorial says.

Over the weekend, the Party-run Xinhua news agency even went as far as naming three of the cliques as well as some of the senior officials it said were connected to them.

"The Secretary Gang," it said, was a group of aides to senior officials, including some of the former personal secretaries of Zhou Yongkang, the once supreme head of China's domestic security apparatus and now himself under criminal investigation.

File photo: Zhou Yongkang, 1 November 2010 Mr Zhou, once head of China's large internal security apparatus, is now facing criminal proceedings

"The Petroleum Gang," were bureaucrats in China's oil industry, a sector also intimately linked to Zhou's patronage and political control.

And finally, "The Shanxi Gang," the newspaper claimed, were officials from the coal rich province, some of whom were linked to Ling Jihua.

Mr Ling is a native of Shanxi who, as a chief aide to the former President Hu Jintao, is another high profile political scalp to have been taken down in President Xi's purges.

This media tirade against the cliques appears to have been given the green light following a statement issued by the Communist Party Central Committee just before New Year.

BBC China Blog

The BBC China blog is where our teams across the country will provide a flavour of their latest insights.

We'll focus on the new and newsworthy, but also use our journalists' expertise to shine fresh light on China's remarkable transformations and upheavals.

Most of the posts will be written or filmed by journalists in our main bureau, in Beijing, or in our other bases in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Please let us know what you think and send us your ideas. You can also use #BBCChinablog to keep up to date with our reports via Twitter.

It said a meeting, headed by President Xi, had determined that: "Organising cliques within the party to run personal businesses is absolutely not tolerated."

Mr Xi's battle against official graft is presented to the Chinese public as a simple fight to restore the virtues of good clean governance by honest officials.

In practice, of course, it is an exercise in which the Communist Party is cleaning out its own stables, on its own terms with no independent judicial scrutiny.

And in a one-party system, in which corruption is often regarded as the rule, not the exception, many are vulnerable and choices are likely to involve an element of political calculation.

So there has long been suspicion that the crackdown is being used as a tool by the president to consolidate power and to eliminate rivals including the retired, but still powerful, Zhou Yongkang.

Now, if anyone ever doubted it, this latest talk of factions only serves to enhance the whiff of political infighting.

Jiang Qing, widow of former China ruler Mao Zedong and one of the defendants in  the Gang of Four, 27 November 1980 Some hark back to the "Gang of Four" era in the 1970s, after which Mao Zedong's widow faced trial

Admittedly the editorials do not accuse the cliques of plotting directly for political power, only of building corrupt empires for economic gain.

Nonetheless, corruption - an ever-present spectre evoked by all administrations, not just this one - has usually been presented as a problem of individual, moral failing rather than one of a deeper, systemic rot.

So there is undoubtedly a political risk in raising the issue of factionalism but it is perhaps a carefully calculated one.

Precisely because the anti-corruption campaign has been given such political priority and is taking down such high profile figures it might be felt that a better explanation is now needed.

So the intensity of the war on corruption is justified and explained by a parallel war on "cliquism."

The fight now is not only against bad individuals, but against the much more sinister mafia-style networks that enable them.

And it can be presented as more proof of President Xi's increasing confidence and strengthening hold on power.

The Xinhua editorial hinted at the risks of taking down the party giants like Zhou but quoted President Xi as saying: "We have identified the mission and purpose of the party, as well as what people expect."

Others though will worry about dark echoes from the past.

"What does all this mean?" writes one Chinese internet user.

"Is it a return to the Gang of Four?" - a reference to the senior party leadership who, along with Chairman Mao, presided over the violent factional infighting of the Cultural Revolution.

About this Blog:

Welcome to the BBC China blog, where our teams across the country will be updating you with their latest insights.

The idea is to focus on the new and newsworthy, but also to use our journalists’ expertise to shine fresh light on China’s remarkable transformation and the upheaval it is bringing to millions of lives.

We also hope the blog will offer a new dimension to our coverage, allowing us to explore stories and themes which we cannot easily get to in our usual news stories and features.

Most of the posts will be written or filmed by journalists in our main bureau, in Beijing, or in our other bureaus in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Please let us know what you think, and which subjects you would be interested to know more about. You can also use #BBCChinablog to keep up to date with our reports via Twitter.

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