Last weekend, I visited the Tate Modern with Polly, Bethan and Trystan to see Ai Weiweiâ€™s sunflower seeds installation. We can look, but cannot touch, because of â€˜health and safetyâ€™ concerns, which is quite hilarious for anybody who has spent any time in China. I remember visiting Lanzhou in February 1989 and the sulphur from the lignite went straight to the back of my throat at ten below. You knew when there had been some snow, because when they cut a new swathe through the roads, the black layers alternated with light, the former meaning the soot was allowed to accumulate undisturbed. Actually, my â€˜eco-momentâ€™ in China was in 1990, when trying to retrace the route Ella Mailart and Peter Fleming took in 1936, I ended up in Mangai Zhen a former â€˜laogaiâ€™ (prison town) between Qinghai and Xinjiang. I had managed to wrangle an â€˜Aliens Travel Permitâ€™ (ATP, they have different colour codes for beings from Mars and Andromeda) and was going from Open and Closed territories to the Forbidden zone. Leaving the town hidden in a truck, the dawn was beautiful; the beauty that only asbestos mines can offer. I didnâ€™t see any old people there.
The day before our visit to the Tate, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His chair was empty as for the first time since 1937, as nobody from the family was allowed to receive the prize. Whoever masterminded Chinaâ€™s response to what was a â€˜little local difficultyâ€™ has no idea about the vast resonance of history. That empty chair spoke more than the presence of a dozen ambassadors.
Looking at the one hundred million hand-painted replica sunflower seeds I wondered what it would be like keeping a hundred million seeds of inspiration under house arrest, even for the duration of a ceremony. In the global sense, all the paranoia about the emerging Chinese superpower is missing one tiny point. When it comes to meeting the challenges of population and climate change, China is one of the worldâ€™s most vulnerable nations. From water management and resource efficiency to eco cities and efficient cars, the old us versus them mindset no longer works. When it comes to sustaining our common futures, surely we are all big enough to sustain a certain loss of face.