“The people who control culture in China have no culture, and in this system art provides a hugely lucrative source of corruption.” Mr Ai notes that artistic works, because they are not officially included in the assets of officials, have become popular as bribes, and many officials have learnt to paint, write or compose music so they can sell their works to people who expect favours in return.
Because of the patronage and benefits officials can bequeath, their work is lauded as genius, unless they fall from grace, as in Mr Wang’s case. Two weeks ago a Beijing court handed him a death sentence suspended for two years, so he is likely to remain in prison for the rest of his life.
Mr Wang served first as vice-chairman of China’s securities regulator in charge of share issuance and fund management, and later as vice-governor of the powerful state-owned China Development Bank, which owns part of Barclays in the UK.
Although he had never studied music and had not heard a full symphony until eight years ago, Mr Wang decided to nurture his latent talent after a trip to Tibet, during which he was struck with an overwhelming urge to sing.
“I’m not a good singer,” Mr Wang reportedly told a friend at the height of his popularity. “But everybody liked the melody.” That melody eventually became the celebrated Ode to China symphony.
China has a long and venerable tradition of indulging its rulers’ artistic endeavours – from the sensitive emperor aesthetes of the Song dynasty to the artistic ambitions of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, whose husband lost China to the Communists in 1949 but who was always able to find buyers for her watercolours.
“Chinese art and culture have long been dependent on patronage and power relationships,” says Peng Feng, a professor of aesthetics at Peking University. “But in modern China we have no historical artistic resources, no cultural traditions or base because so much was wiped away during the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976] and what was left was all political.”
He says the officials who wield such power over the artistic sphere are not considered important in the bureaucracy and so tend to be conservative and sycophantic.
“Today in China success is defined solely in terms of economic wealth, and because these cultural officials don’t have much access to funding they have to suck up to more important officials who control the money, like Wang Yi,” Mr Peng said.
In the wake of the hugely successful animated film Kung Fu Panda, prominent Chinese media commentators published a string of soul-searching articles asking why such a film was made in Hollywood instead of China, even though all the themes were Chinese.
Critics such as Mr Peng and Mr Ai say government control and the conditions illustrated by the Wang case are two key reasons. The problem extends to almost all the creative industries, they say, including television, popular music, film, theatre and literature.
Amateur acting groups that want to rent a hall to put on a community play must pass a political inspection; television and radio are tightly monitored; and film production is “controlled like the mafia, with propaganda officials deciding who becomes famous, which films get made and even what audiences can watch, based on patronage rather than merit”, according to Mr Ai.
Contemporary fine arts, where Mr Ai made his mark and where China has made more of a global impression, are not so tightly controlled. The reason for this is also mostly political, according to Mr Peng. “Fine art is often abstract and not usually for the masses and most of the masses and officials don’t understand it. So even if it is controversial or political, the government doesn’t care about it or try to control it so much.”