Mao’s death was followed by a very short period of freedom of expression in China. Known as the “Beijing Spring”, it was part of the new head of state Deng Xiaoping’s desire to distance himself from the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution.
A brick wall near Tiananmen Square in Beijing briefly became the site of a democracy movement after Mao’s death in 1976. People travelled from all over China to put up posters on this “Democracy Wall”. They demanded accountability for the tens of thousands of people murdered and imprisoned during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
At the same time, a group of former factory workers founded the art group “Stars” – among them, the young Ai Weiwei. They exhibited critical works on the wall, including abstract paintings and sculptures in which they settled accounts with the Cultural Revolution. Wei Jingsheng was arrested for publishing an essay in which he called Deng Xiaoping a dictator. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The members of the artists’ group Stars, however, succeeded in recording the secret trial on tape. They published the trial‘s transcript on the Wall of Democracy, garnering worldwide attention: even the New York Times reported on it.
When the traditional National Day military parade was canceled because the country was still officially mourning Mao’s death, the Stars art collective decided to organize a parade on their own. They bid goodbye to their families and friends, as they risked their lives to fight for freedom of expression and art. Deng Xiaoping used violence against the protesters and increased censorship. The Wall of Democracy was abolished, and many of the activists and artists were sentenced to prison or forced into exile. It was the end of the “Beijing Spring”.
Filmmaker Chi Xiaoning documented this period of revolt on 16mm film. When he was arrested, he managed to save the material by destroying blank film reels in front of the police instead of the originals. Chi’s family and friends hid the footage for decades. In this documentary, the footage is shown publicly for the first time.
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