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Chinese artist's portraits of corruption

The list of corrupt officials in China is long. A Chinese artist has created a gallery of 1,600 tacky, pink-hued, currency-colored portraits to make sure they are not forgotten.

BEIJING – Zhang Bingjian’s art studio in the northern suburb of Beijing looks like a simple one. Spiral stairs lead to a small penthouse where he stores his books and makes tea for guests, a big wooden desk sits downstairs, and a huge map of China hangs on the wall. 

But something catches your attention when you walk in: Dozens of huge portraits on the wall, all in bright pink, all of Chinese government officials convicted of corruption charges.

Most of the officials are in prison, some have been executed, and others have been sentenced to “death with reprieve” – which in China means a life sentence.

Zhang came up with the idea of creating his “hall of shame” as early as March 2009, during China’s National People’s Congress, the annual meeting of Communist Party officials.  It was then that he learned that 3,000 officials had been convicted for corruption in the previous year alone. 

“I was shocked at the numbers, I did not realize there were so many,” Zhang told NBC News during a recent visit to his studio.  “China is in such a transition period, those corruption issues also should be witnessed in a historic context.”

The artist decided to depict the history of China’s shame as part of an ongoing project. But he is not the actual painter – the portraits are mass-produced just like other “made-in-China” commodities. 

Zhang picks a publicly prosecuted government official, finds his age, crime, and most importantly, a photo of him – then he sends it to Dafen village in southern China, a place famous for churning out cheap, Wal-Mart-quality oil paintings for the whole world.  Through an assistant, Zhang finds artists in Dafen village to paint the portraits in a deliberately tacky and assembly-line style to reflect China’s 30 years as the world’s leading exporter of low-end, mass manufacturing. Their rosy hue is the same bright pink color as the Chinese currency.

Zhang doesn’t remember all the names of the officials portrayed and says he doesn’t want to play the role of a judge or prosecutor. “For me, I see the project as a whole instead of each individual portion,” he said.

Widespread corruption
Critics say corruption has long been one of China’s most chronic problems. Chinese presidents and premiers, including the current leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, have publicly denounced rampant corruption for years, but standards of conduct only seem to deteriorate. 

Out of 178 countries in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perception Index – which measures the perceived levels of corruption in public sectors – China ranked 78th.

That’s lower than most other developed countries, as well as many developing countries such as Brazil and Cuba.
According to a Beijing News report last May, 24,406 government officials were jailed in 2010 for corruption, up 9.4 percent from 2009.  Almost 6,000 of them were sentenced to more than five years in prison.  

China is also one of the few countries in the world that executes its citizens on corruption charges.  Some of the officials captured in Zhang’s portraits have already been executed, including the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration and the former governor of Guangxi province.

As of today, Zhang has produced about 1,600 portraits.  Some hang on his studio wall; others are stacked in wooden crates, waiting to be displayed either in China or overseas. 

Zhang joked about ideas for his next exhibition.

“Maybe we can do another project for the U.S. America also has corrupt officials so the painting would be green, the color of U.S. dollars,” he said.

When asked whether or when he will ever finish the project, Zhang admitted one day he might have to stop producing the portraits if he cannot continue to finance himself and the 20-plus painters he employs.  Still, he doesn’t really know when he’ll move on.
 “It could end soon, probably within the next five years.  It could also be the next 15 years.  Part of the beauty of this piece is it’s open-ended,” he said with a smile. 

(Celeste Ho contributed to the story.)