Mr Democracy

A written constitution for the UK (made in China)

  • Welcome to Mr Democracy, the story of a British artist who set off to get a written constitution for the UK made.
    Understanding the changing balance of power in the world, and with a nod to Britain’s ‘democratic’ ventures across the world, he chose to get it written in China, and ship it back to the UK.
    Read more under 'about' and in the many blog entries.

Expensive coffee

Posted by mrdemocracy on 02,08,2008

I am in Shanghai to meet the writers of the constitution, graduate students from the East China University of Politics and Law. Simon Kirby from SKAculture has put me in touch with them through Vernisa Yang who works with him, and studies there too. Before coming to China, I had tried to contact so many people to ask if they knew people who could work on this constitution. I had some other good potential writers too, there was a journalist who worked for the FT China, who held relatively critical views, and another who worked for the People’s Daily, the Sun of China. I had discussed many hours with all sorts of people who could write the document, and who I could try to approach at all. I had originally planned to run workshops in order to develop the constitution, but this seemed too far from the concept in the end, and I was right to leave this idea. It would have been interesting to get a staunchly pro-Beijing journalist, which could have produced a more critical constitution, but the only people with the knowledge in the end were these constitutional lawyers. They themselves of course had to put the time in to research the subject, and even with payment, it required a huge time investment.

I met Gracie, my translator, on the saturday afternoon, near the park. We went for a walk, and discussed the project, politics and China. She too shared this view critical of the western demonstrators and media around the world, and told me about her Chinese friend who had travelled down from Sydney to join the pro-China protests. She hadn’t considered the irony and hypocrisy of the demonstrators defending a country which didn’t allow them to demonstrate. The irony seemed double as we got onto this subject talking about this friend of hers in Australia because he wasn’t allowed to travel back to China, despite being a Chinese passport holder. She said it was difficult to get visas, I had to ask her about 8 times before I beleived her that a Chinese national needed permission to come back to China, and indeed, didn’t get it. What was also interesting was to hear Gracie say that they don’t have the language to talk about these things, to criticise the government. With whom could she discuss criticism? In what context? There is simply no culture of it. Our system is based on not trusting our government (although the American system apparently not – this would be ‘anti-American’).

I was later a little shocked to see she charged me for this time, I would never have chatted so long, had I known. I’ve never paid to go for a coffee with someone before. When she first met me, she was suprised that I wasn’t accompanied, and this was indicative of her view of me. It reminded me that despite her good english, she had never left China, and her view of foreigners was limited.

She took me on a little tour of their campus, next to the park and river, its fairly old and quite a retreat in the centre of Shanghai. The University on this site was founded in 1879, then called St John’s College. Most signs of the colonial times are in some way well hidden in China, its a subject of shame, and not good memories. This way this founding stone had been half built over for me was a sign of this attitutude, and talking with Simon Kirby later, he had heard of St John’s, but never knew quite where it was.
On our tour, we came across big images of momentous moments in China’s history on several of the outside walls of the sports courts.

Discussing them, Gracie said she’d never really considered them before, but I found them quite striking – military displays, world leaders meeting. Trying to think of our equivalents. We might have Churchhill, that would be fairly uncontroversial (ignoring the questionable activities of his early career) but I’m not sure if there were images of the Falklands being taken back. I feel fortunate we don’t have military parades, or at least they’re limited – the red arrows are decommisioned, not ‘heroes’ just back from Iraq.


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