China's expulsion of Australian artist leaves a rotten smell

Beijing: In Guo Jian’s studio, the unmistakable stench of raw meat still lingers.

It was four years ago that the Australian artist first started on the two-by-five metre diorama of Tiananmen Square that will likely – rightly or wrongly – come to define his work.

Last month, he completed the installation, tipping 160 kilograms of raw minced pork in a private protest marking the 25th anniversary of the violent military suppression of the student-led pro-democracy protests at the square, events he witnessed first-hand.

Police arrived in two cars and took him away on Sunday. By Friday, his visa had been cancelled and he will be effectively expelled from China after serving a 15-day period of “administrative detention”.

His work now lies in a crumpled mess of plywood and Styrofoam; heavily symbolic, says neighbour and fellow artist Wu Yiqiang, of his close friend’s trampled artistic expression and right to free speech.

“This work was created by Guo Jian, but it has really been completed by the government,” Mr Wu said. “Nothing can capture the upheaval better.”


On Friday, Fairfax Media watched as police officers escorted Guo Jian back to his studio in Songzhuang to pick up personal belongings.

Handcuffed and dressed in a yellow-and-blue detention centre uniform, an unshaven Mr Guo gave a wink and a nod when told he had many friends and supporters concerned about him. “Thanks, mate,” he said.

One policeman at the Songzhuang studio told Fairfax Media that Mr Guo would be sent straight to the airport once he finishes his period of detention on June 16.

He said it was an open-and-shut visa infraction which Mr Guo had confessed to: obtaining a work visa from a company where he wasn’t employed. “We have all the evidence we need,” he said.

But friends and rights advocates expressed scepticism over the timing of the discovery of the alleged visa infraction, pointing out he had been able to extend his visa in the nine years he has worked as an artist in China, having returned to the mainland in 2005 after 13 years in Australia.

They say the likely reason for his detention and expulsion from China stemmed from a heartfelt and at times cutting interview he gave to the Financial Times, where he spoke of what he witnessed during the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

“I didn’t believe it, even though I had been a soldier,” Mr Guo said in the interview. “In the army I had never seen that sort of violence. Then I saw the tracers and people falling around me – they were just gone. I suddenly realised, s---, this was war.”

Mr Guo was detained the day after the publication of the story.

“In the absence of other information, it’s hard to reach a conclusion other than he’s been stripped of his visa because he was talking about Tiananmen,” said Sophie Richardson, the China Director of Human Rights Watch.

The detention of Mr Guo, a popular figure in both contemporary Chinese  art circles and the Australian expatriate community in Beijing, has been alarming for its apparent punishment of a foreign citizen expressing personal views to a foreign newspaper. It is also the latest instance of an ethnic-Chinese Australian falling foul of the law in the mainland, after the high-profile cases of Stern Hu, Matthew Ng, Charlotte Chou and Du Zuying.

Mr Guo, who migrated to Australia in 1992, is often cited as a shining light in China-Australia cultural diplomacy, and has been exhibited at numerous important venues, including the National Gallery of Australia. Numerous prominent Australians including, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, are known to be collectors and admirers of his work.

Mr Guo's sister, Guo Min, has been rushing back and forth between Beijing and Changzhou, where she looks after their elderly father, who had an operation for cancer earlier this year.

with Sanghee Liu