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Deng Xiaoping as Cultural Conservative

Today is Deng Xiaoping’s birthday. He was born in 1904 in Guang’an, Sichuan, a city now receiving various and not entirely uncontroversial forms of capital as a result. Consequently, I am reminded of my desire at some point in 2015–16 to reread big chunks of of the Deng Xiaoping biography which Harvard University Press wisely agreed to publish in 2013, written by Ezra Vogel.

Amid the chorus of praise and critique for Ezra Vogel’s epic, there has been some renewed debate about the meaning of Deng – stifled reactionary or true reformer? (The answer with respect to Hu Jintao seemed to veer toward the former.) Suffice it to say that there are multiple sources upon which one might rely to test this assertion, but of late, I have seen this one as being particularly useful, as it describes his fears of liberalization.

Source: Deng Xiaoping, “Excerpts from Talks Given in Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai” (Jan. 18-Feb. 21, 1992) in Selected Works (online in English)

Image: Deng Xiaoping at a Houston rodeo, 2 February 1979, courtesy Georgetown University.

Keeping China in Check: How North Korea Manages its Relationship with a Superpower

On the 24-hour train from Pyongyang to Peking; "Le retour à Pékin se fait en train. Un voyage de 24h auquel participe également un militaire nord-coréen."  Photo A. de la Grange, via Le Figaro

On the 24-hour train from Pyongyang to Peking; “Le retour à Pékin se fait en train. Un voyage de 24h auquel participe également un militaire nord-coréen.” Photo A. de la Grange, via Le Figaro

The following essay was published at the China Policy Institute blog, University of Nottingham, on 28 July 2014 (link). 

Around the world today, knowing how and when to deflect the will of the Chinese Communist Party seems to be something of a common theme. Beijing’s confidence is manifested at every turn: When one of its top leaders arrives in London, China seems to expect nothing less than audiences with the Queen, massive and obligatory profits, and silence about Tibet. Chinese state propaganda continues to promote a version of history that emphasizes victimization by the West, but by and large the country’s government now gets what it wants.

Why, then, when China looks at its impoverished neighbour North Korea, does the PRC seem so stymied, and even impotent?

Economic leverage has been a key tool in Beijing’s kit. But, just as the existence of large economic ties does not ipso facto prevent war from breaking out between China and Japan, the notion of strong economic ties between China and North Korea does not necessarily lead to outright Chinese influence – or China’s ability to use that leverage. The DPRK is surely dependent upon foreign trade with China, Chinese oil, and consumer goods, and North Korean businesses operating legally in China are a major contributor to the Pyongyang regime’s balance sheet.

Pyongyang’s ability to survive on very little, and the implicit threat of its collapse, make it almost impossible for China to shut off this flow. A shutting-off of cross-border trade would not simply represent a backtracking after years of slow growth, it would be a total contradiction in Beijing’s broader policy to open up frontier areas for transportation and trade. Such a policy would also lead to a great deal of illegal cross-border activity which the PRC is already rather annoyed at having to police.

Cultural influence, or ‘soft power’ has been another element of Beijing’s global strategy. There are equivalents of the ‘Confucius Institutes’ in Pyongyang, with an estimated 700 graduates per year. But North Korea keeps its small population of overseas Chinese under careful surveillance (Kim Jong-un finally allowed them to have landline telephones, an improvement) and at Chinese New Year’s parties in Pyongyang, foreigners outnumber North Koreans. Chinese students at elite universities in Pyongyang will occasionally swap USB sticks with North Korean friends, but the content absorbed is just as likely to be Japanese pornography as tracts about marketization.

Kim Il-song was mortally opposed to Chinese language education in the DPRK, telling his successors not to trust Chinese capitalists. There is no need to conjure up a ‘last testament of Kim Jong-il’ to argue that anti-Chinese sentiment is hard-wired into the ruling arts of the North Korean leadership.

Using military power in North Korea is hardly a hypothetical for the PRC, which undertook three draining years of total conventional war against the US and United Nations in Korea (1950-1953) and spent another five years of occupation and reconstruction of the DPRK (1953-1958). Mao’s gamble that intervening in the Korean War would not result in either a huge defeat or American nuclear attacks on Chinese soil paid off. But Chinese leaders today have very little stomach for another war to either destroy or save the DPRK; North Korea’s nuclear deterrent provides yet more reason to stay out.

North Korea’s unique historical position as a sovereign state that had been fully occupied by Chinese communist troops understandably makes the North Koreans touchy and prone to exaggerated claims of Kimist power and genius. It also makes the Chinese extremely halting when any suggestion is tendered that such a turn of events could again come to pass. Even the fatuous editors elevated as ‘public intellectuals’ in PRC state media have to recognize Beijing’s sense of ambivalence in this area.

If history helps to immobilize China’s freedom of action with North Korea, the communist giant’s relationships in the region also prevent it from making much progress. Outright hatred of Abe Shinzo means that there is next to no policy coordination between Japan and China on North Korea – very much to the benefit of Pyongyang. And every forward step taken to heighten the symbolism of China’s relationship with Seoul makes North Korea all the more recalcitrant and obdurate. When Xi Jinping went to the South Korean capital on 3 July, the DPRK media said he shared Park Geun-hye’s ‘dog’s dream of denuclearization’; less than three weeks later, the country’s top political and military organ, the National Defence Commission chaired by Kim Jong-un, called China ‘weak-willed…clinging to the malodorous coattails of the US.’

North Korea is no poster child for doing Beijing’s bidding. Assertions that North Korea is China’s “savage attack dog” make for exciting reading, but are completely off-base. It is North Korea’s refusal to heed China’s pressure and insistence that in so many ways makes the country noteworthy.




China’s Soft Power Strategy and the DPRK

Is North Korea, as Joseph Nye once apparently argued, “immune” from soft power and persuasion? In a recent North Korea Review article, Steven Denney and I argue that the DRPK is not. Recent events in Pyongyang involving an American basketball delegation meeting with Kim Jong-un are not necessarily bizarre, nor are they without utility for both the Americans and the North Koreans. Certainly they should force another reappraisal of the role that cultural diplomacy, Track II exchanges, and cultural power plays with respect to our attempts to change or otherwise enter the North Korean thought stream.

If State Department officials in Washington DC struggle to craft an appropriate soft power strategy for Pyongyang, their counterparts in Beijing appear to be way ahead, being armed with decades of “fraternal relations” with North Korea. Or are the Chinese really ahead of the game? What cultural products from Beijing are North Koreans dying—or allowed—to have? Finally, as the PRC Xi Jinping pushes a global propaganda line on “the Chinese dream,” it should be clear that North Korea is far from immune from the pressures and opportunities brought with this wave of rhetoric—and resources.

Read the entire translation and essay, which is a collaboration with the protean German Sinologist Franz Bleeker, at Sino-NK.

JR’s Soft Power Summary

In what I anticipate will be an ongoing feature to strengthen the cultural diplomacy and Chinese “soft power” profile on this site, SinoMondiale will be carrying some periodic summaries of related work by JustRecently, whose weblog, as can be seen from even a casual glance at his handiwork just today, is one of the most detailed and active sites for analysis of the mechanics and rhetoric of China’s soft power strategy today. — Adam Cathcart


Documenting Claims of China’s “Charm Diplomacy”

A recent essay on Chinese “soft power” written not by a US-trained academic, but from within China, provides a chance to find fissures between how and why China is using Western concepts of cultural power on the global stage.  (See Yang Danzhi, “Charm Diplomacy Bears Fruit,” China Daily, April 9, 2012).

The tendency is to read the China Daily as merely a state-controlled paper whose editorial line is relatively monolithic.  But Chinese op-eds — like policy directions, for that matter — are often cobbled together piece by piece, and it is individual academics who bring the issues forward into light, often with telling, revealing, or simply clumsy juxtapositions. Scholars who do not occupy the top chairs in Chinese think-tanks do not drive policy, but they way that they chose to interpret overall policy direction —and the prose that they churn out in that endeavor – can tell us more about the ideological and foreign policy terrain being surveyed in Beijing.

Yang Danzhi, a researcher in the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at (CASS[English]/中国社会科学研究院[Chinese]) provides grist for review today. Because I have not had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Yang, we can only gather a few facts from online ephemera: resume, previous output.  A dissertation, of course, would tell us much more, but with a handful of op-eds over the years, a series of views emerges which is very much in line with the kind of Huanqiu Shibao brand of nationalism.

Yang spent several years in Yunnan Province, on China’s Southwestern frontier, where the presence of India and Southeast Asia is felt far more palpably than in distant, dusty, and dry Peking.  Scholars from the periphery tend to sometimes be even more hardline.

The world looks very different from the China-Myanmar frontier — Photo by Jonah Kessel, courtesy Danwei.org

If more fodder is needed to pinpint the type – an all-purpose pundit with an emphasis on the southern hemisphere — this piece on Sino-Austrialian relations from 2010 is indicative of the tack taken: Australia is “confused” by China’s rise.”

Perhaps not too much should be expected from the scholars in Beijing who do not rise to the level of gravitas of Zhang Liangui, Lv Chao, or the Beida oracle Zhu Feng, particularly when one realizes that back in January 2011 they were writing nice things about North Korea’s impressive asymmetrical warfare capacities which hamstrung “great powers.”

From my somewhat-Chengdu-centric standpoint, Yang’s “Charm Diplomacy” piece is incongruous in the extreme.  Boosterism for one’s country is perhaps to be expected, but to wax rhapsodic about the bright and harmonious future of Sino-Indian cooperation during the BRICS meetings in India while the PLA press was churning out whole public dossiers on the coming conflict in what it calls “southern Tibet” would appear to indicate a certain blind spot.

Franz Bleeker is thanked for his comments on and contributions to this essay

Lux Sinica: China’s Civilizing Influence in North Korea

It takes more than a few days, or perhaps a few weeks, to sift through all the reports, speculation, and rumors surrounding Kim Jong Il’s “new deal” with China.  At the end of the day, though, it seems that a single question aids in interpreting the phenomenon: To what extent has Kim Jong Il’s visit to China spurred the North Korean regime to embrace even the appearance of a reformist direction? 

In other words, is there any indication, however small, that Kim Jong Il or his Korean Workers’ Party is internalizing themselves or mobilizing society toward a policy approximating that of Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s?  Given how much the North Korean leadership is said to despise Deng Xiaoping, perhaps the “Dengist direction” is not the ideal way to phrase a move toward North Korean reform, but certainly the CCP leadership does not shirk from the label or the idea.  But let us review the recent evidence:

New Slogans in Pyongyang

A couple of weeks ago, the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang was the only place this new North Korean slogan (something like “Based on the Local, Step Into the World”) was being discussed.  (For an English rendering of the story via Google, click here.)

New Slogans in Pyongyang -- image courtesy PRC Embassy in Pyongyang

Now the slogan is getting aired in a more prestigious publication, the “International Herald Leader,” one of the more rational and widely-read foreign affairs weekly tabloids published in Beijing.  In his full-page spread on the DPRK entitled “North Korea Wants to Rush Toward ‘A Powerful Nation’ [朝鲜要向‘强盛大国’冲刺], the paper’s man in Pyongyang, Zhang Li [张利] writes extensively of the new slogans.

There is of course the idea, too, that the North Korean regime could just be doing this to string along people like you and me, offering up the appearance of, or the possibility of, reforms, and then taking no actual further steps in that direction.  Certainly it would not be the first time such a thing happened. And we should be mindful that North Korea does quite a lot (the 2009 nuclear tests being a signal example) without necessarily considering what the impact is on their Chinese patrons.  But even when we are striding through a Potempkinian landscape, we need to take note of the details!  There is some evidence that Pyongyang’s more persistent propaganda emphasis on living standards and economic growth is at the very least reaping some benefits in giving Chinese elites (e.g., 知识分子 or literate people who consume news) some idea that their support of North Korea is resulting in tangible and positive changes in the DPRK.

Confucius in Pyongyang

In other good news for Beijing, Chinese language education appears to be making solid inroads in Pyongyang.  Estimates such as those in Bruce Bechtol’s 2010 book Defiant Failed State, and articles by people like Robert Kaplan, tend to toss off statements about the Chinese taking over North Korea with ease.  Why else would the PRC be rebuilding roads along the border and fixing up bridges?  This group of analysts frequently make hay from the notion that China has huge competitive advantages in its business and other interactions with North Korea.  In fact, if language is the barometer the Chinese are at a disadvantage; Kim II Song cut off Chinese language education in North Korea at the knees in the late 1950s.  This makes the PRC even more reliant on Yanbian Koreans for commercial interaction with the North, using Yanbian as a channel.  Reliable statistics about numbers of Chinese speakers in the North are hard to come by, but we do know that the small Chinese minority (North Korea’s only bona fide ethnic minority) has been among the most closely watched sectors of the society and, unlike in places like Malaysia or Philippines, has been unable to spread its mercantile spirit into the greater society.  It has also been in a kind of linguistic quarantine.

We do know that North Korean teachers of Chinese were studying at Beijing University, laying the foundation for the big event in Pyongyang.  See my 18 February 2010 essay, “Confucius Institute Outreach to DPRK.”

Thus it is a turn of events to find that the Confucius Institute in Pyongyang appears to be thriving.  And lest you think this is not a particularly big deal in the orbit of North Korea’s foreign relations, consider how obstinate the DPRK has been about language and cultural education toward European states with whom it is also distinctly in a warming phase:  The German Goethe Institute was forced out of Pyongyang because of restrictions and the French Alliance Francais (disclaimer; I am a card-carrying member) cannot get into Pyongyang no matter how many delegations of French socialists make their obeisance to Mangyongdae.  So the Workers’ Party is embracing finally the building of the linguistic infrastructure necessary to do business with China, in in China.

(Click here for photos of the Confucius Institute party in Pyongyang, via the Chinese Embassy in the DPRK.)

One of the more palatable aspects of my fieldwork along the North Korean border are the conversations I am able to have with probably a couple dozen North Korean waitresses in China.  Setting aside the somewhat asinine claim that these girls are all spy-seductresses whose command of taekwando is worthy of a James Bond plot, one of the main reasons they come to the mainland to work is to acquire Chinese language.  One said to me not long ago “it will be very useful for doing business when I go back to Korea,” nodding earnestly.  I very much doubt that this person is some completely brainwashed cog whose study of Chinese is part of some grand plan of North Korea to deceive China into thinking relations are friendly.  She and others are well aware that Chinese is the business language of the region and are acting accordingly.  It seems that, rather belatedly, the North Korean state is having the same revelation.

Return to Chinese Cultural Superiority?

One possible problem that the North Koreans are already facing, and have been facing since the Koguryo locked swords with the Sui, is that of Chinese cultural superiority.

China’s recent action with Vietnam indicates how strong this kind of cultural chauvinism can be, seeing China inherently as the older brother.  How deep this notion is ingrained in China’s diplomacy can be seen in a recent standoff with Vietnam in the South China Sea.  As Wang Hanling, director of Chinese Academy of Social Scienes’ Centre for Oceans Affairs and the Law of the Sea, said to the South China Morning Post on 13 June 2011 (p. A4) stated of the Vietnamese:

If the big brother bullies the younger brother, that is not good and is something that should not happen.  If the little brother challenges or bullies the older brother, it’s just ridiculous.

At a time when China is under attack from Western European states for not following European models of Enlightenment – seen expressly in the case of Germany and Ai Weiwei and art exhibits in Beijing – it is all the more important for Beijing to be able to pose itself as a benevolent tutor for the region, to behave, in other words, as a Confucian hegemon.  In a recent podcast with some big names in China analysis, Jeremy Goldkorn paraphrases Martin Jacques in terming this “Tributary System 2.0.”  In the context of bilateral relations with the DPRK, the label can be considered rather true.

Wen Jiabao stated it most clearly on his overseas junket, but the trope of China’s civilizing influence in the DPRK comes through in smaller channels as well.  A semi-official blog carried by Huanqiu Shibao states Kim Jong Il came to China for “enlightenment” as well as aid:



Kim Jong Il came to China this time, and what did North Korea get from China?  To use just one sentence to describe it, one could say that ‘North Korea has gained a future….’

This kind of Chinese salvationist rhetoric for North Korea sounds almost white and missionary.

An early analysis of Kim Jong Il’s presence in Nanjing by the Huanqiu Shibao offers up further, somewhat simplistic, reflections on Chinese success in helping the North Koreans stagger forward into modernity.  But in so doing, the story necessarily becomes a frank admission of Kim’s need for aid and “education,” even if the slogans are optimistic: “金正日版南巡讲话,” etc.

The same ambivalence, the balancing of Chinese auto-glorification with acknowledgement of Kim’s recalcitrance, appears on a different Huanqiu BBS.  Covering a story on North Korea’s high tech industry, the report is said to emerge out of the quarter of Zhongguancun [中关村], a high-tech district near Beijing University positively bursting with circuitry, programmers, and ambitious hawkers of soft- and hard-ware.   (Anyone who has purchased a laptop in Zhongguancun, receiving deep assurances of total loyalty from a serviceperson, and then returned to get a hand with something only to find that the young Turk with whom you had just last week been having lunch with to bond after a big purchase has already moved to Shanghai will know what I mean.)  The 

Huanqiu blog promotes North Korean computer production as yet another sign that China is helping the DPRK into the modern age, or, as the North puts it weirdly, “CNC Technology.”  But the netizens cannot resist: the first commenter on the blog, obviously aware of the North Korean propaganda line on Kim Jong Eun as the harbinger of all things digital and binary, asks: “Is the Little Dictator Going to Increase Production/小霸王升级版?”

Quite naturally, there are more than a few North Koreans who find this whole state of affairs galling, and one of them is, in all likelihood, Kim Jong Il.  He is nothing if not his father’s son.  Kim Jong Il can only continue with what DailyNK aptly calls his “China Angst,” gaining some small solace from his pet areas: cooperation and funding for broadcasting work and 2012 movie festivals.

Kim’s angst, his pushback against China, and his effort to carve out the latitude for freedom of action outside of Beijing’s orbit, is, however, the subject of a subsequent post which draws the very productive people at KCNA and my new Weibo feed of links on Sino-North Korean relations.

Enlightenment, Cell, Studio: Beijing, Berlin, and Ai Weiwei

Image courtesy Richard Kraus, University of Oregon

In its typically understated fashion of reasserting totalitarian facts, the Chinese government appears to have arrested the dissident provocateur Ai Weiwei in Beijing.  (Hat tip to Evan Osnos in Beijing for the full story.)

The timing of the arrest is a bit curious.  What serves as a trigger for such an arrest, after all, particularly given that this action seemed to be the work of China’s central government rather than an arbitrary action of local cops?

For me, two things:

1.) Ai Weiwei is building a studio in Berlin, and 2.) the German Foreign Minister just returned a few days ago from a visit to Beijing, where, among other things, he opened a much-celebrated “Art of the Enlightenment” exhibition at China’s newly-rennovated National Museum.

Are the Chinese Communists so paranoid that the “Enlightenment” theme — held in a museum once focused wholly on Party history, no less — prompts internal criticism and necessitates a conciliating step whereby an artist with deep ties to Germany is silenced?  It’s a speculative connection, but so is most of the reporting from Ai Weiwei these days.

Fortunately I am in Berlin this week to present a recital of Soviet and contemporary Chinese Cello Sonatas (and crank out as much book manuscript as possible, and get into some Nazi archives as regards relations with Japan in the 1930 and 40s) and can make a few inquiries into the question of Ai’s studio in the city.

Given the rising consensus on China’s increasingly confident external veneer, and Ai’s high international profile, it seems foolish not to place Ai’s arrest in the matrix of China’s foreign policy, a policy which has an explicitly cultural component.

How can China’s global cultural expansion be considered as viable of study and emulation when the homeland displays such a lack of fundamental freedoms for artists.  Doesn’t China gain much more by leaving Ai alone with his ridiculous Tweets, his children’s backpacks, his furniture salvaging all rumbling out the pedal tone of a harmonious society?

Or is harmony a synonym for silence?

Looking for truth in Party slogans is a fool’s game, but then again, the artist produces slogans, too, of a counter type.  “Im gegenteil…” A thesis which goes uninterrogated by a counterthesis emerges as weaker thereby, unforged, a tepid strength which can only be compensated for with quick bursts of arbitrary force.

Is China ever going to emerge beyond a situation whereby arbitrary exercise of state power is no longer a defining characteristic of the state?  Is it possible for a one-party system to maintain a legal system whereby one knows clearly when one is following the law and when one is breaking it?  Can’t China keep its Legalist, Qin-dynasty model of judgment and open punishments while ridding itself of the arbitrary and paranoid Stalinist elements?

Is paranoia a desirable cultural trait?  Perhaps China’s Public Security Bureau could use its vastly augmented budget (eat your heart out, “Department of Homeland Security”/Vaterland Staatssicherheitsdienst!) in order to host a series of seminars abroad, using foreign Confucius Institutes to explain to all the doubting foreigners why Ai Weiwei, in combination with a few hundred million mobile workers, several million prostitutes, gangs in Heilongjiang, a horde of hungry North Korean refugees, gangs of qi-gong prone grannies in Shandong, and whole swaths of nomadic/Islamic religious and ethnic minorities are in such dire need of a strong and paternal steel hand.  Take a lesson from your predecessors in the business, China: Justify the truncheon and it shall be celebrated.  Succeed in demonizing and defining the decadent foe and its elimination shall be tolerated.  But your Othering is miserable, lacking the strength to expel totally what you yourself have helped to absorb and recreate.

Veering back to analysis: It would be a little shocking if there weren’t someone in the Central Committee who thought it might be a good time to remind the Germans that no one in China’s government gives a damn when Germany makes waves about human rights issues.  In other words, the CCP tells Berlin, we can cooperate economically (China is Germany’s #2 trade partner, second to the U.S.) while you give us as much green technology transfer as you can, but your protestations relating to Tibet, human rights, freedom of speech, etc., are not only futile but counterproductive.

As in the case of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize ceremony, where Beijing made everyone crassly uncomfortable about attending and strong armed some smaller countries like Afghanistan into skipping the ceremony, the CCP will today use its punishment of an intellectual figure to reinforce its imperviousness to foreign critique.  For the CCP, the desired corollary of the arrest is the renewed wave of foreign opprobrium, which, after the facts of the matter are sufficiently spread via oral rumor, acknowledged and redigested by such leading organs as the Huanqiu Shibao, can then be fed into the nationalistic echo chamber of the Chinese internet, thus reminding the lobotomized-of-Locke (John, not Gary) netizens that external criticism of China’s path forward is just unfair.

So expect another predictable cycle to begin.  Perhaps that was the goal in any case.

Relevant Links and Sources

This recent Frontline documentary, “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei?”

The United States government, which announced a “return to Asia” in October 2010, has yet to comment on Ai Weiwei detention.  You can, however, get a quick overview (via both text and video) of U.S.-East Asia policy via this short testimony summary by Kurt Campbell at the State Department.

Although the author of The Party and the Arty does not seem to be a blogger, Richard Kraus‘ writing on matters relating to the specific cultural borrowing by and the specific political nature of the CCP is highly recommended.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle’s short statement on Ai Weiwei’s detention.  Is it possible that China wants to put so much egg on this man’s face that he, already embattled domestically, just gives up?  But as we already know, weak and embattled Parties will sometimes do desperate things.


My friend and colleague Paul Manfredi, who has written quite a lot about Ai Weiwei on the bookmark-worthy blog China Avant-Garde, gets the last word in a prescient December 2010 essay:

…on balance, I’d say we’re approaching the point when Ai Weiwei transitions from artist to activist.  Of course, the zero-sum, or mutually exclusive implication of that sentence is questionable—how many the venerable artist-activists in human history, and how many of them in China.  Indeed, the literati figure, well schooled in classics and fully imbued with a “art for society’s sake” 文以載道 mentality, is by definition (or at least by some definition) a social activist.  Yet, in the contemporary Chinese setting, the artist, particularly one as globally inflected as Ai, often curtails his or her ability to connect with a constituency.  I don’t mean just a Chinese constituency (which is commonly the argument against their legitimacy), but ANY constituency.  This is because by and large in the Euramerican West what Ai “means” is thorn in side of the Chinese government regardless (indeed, without “regard”) of his actual works.  In this case his status as activist amounts to a kind of barrier, obscuring his works from engagement or even the visibility they often deserve.

Of course, less than “curtailing” this can certainly be more a suspension of Ai’s contribution to the world of art per se.  He no doubt knows what he’s doing, and exchanging hats (because wearing these two simultaneously does not work) is certainly his prerogative. I just find myself wondering how much good (call it “better”) work might otherwise appear if Ai were to shift activities from politics back to making art.