To celebrate the 40th anniversary of China's Reform and Opening (改革开放 gǎigé kāifàng) policy, a special exhibition was held at the National Museum of China in Beijing during late 2018. In this post, I share photos and observations from two visits to the exhibition.

I first went on a Friday afternoon and joined a long line of people waiting to get in for the final few hours before the museum shut. From conversations that I overheard, it seems that many in the queue were state employees who had been instructed to attend (hence the big turnout on a working day). On my second visit the following Monday (necessary to finish viewing the vast quantity of materials on display), there was nobody waiting to get in. Admission was free, indicating that this was clearly no money-making venture, but a state-funded public information (or "propaganda") campaign.

A busy waiting area on a Friday...
...compared to a very quiet Monday.

People visiting the exhibition stopped to take photos in front of the museum and its grand entrance display, featuring the classic red and gold typesetting of the communist movement, as well as a large floral installation.

Visitors stop to take photos in front of the "Great Changes" display and other installations.

Such imagery conveyed a strong association with the CCP's Leninist heritage, despite the fact that "Reform and Opening" was originally intended to break away from that Mao-era Communist orthodoxy. This would be the first of several conflicting messages I encountered.

Some of those attending were clearly party members, as indicated by their hammer-and-sickle flags, while others were state workers, including a team of public security personnel.

In addition to state workers and party members, school pupils were another key visitor profile at the exhibition.

Young students pose for photos in front of banners proclaiming a "new era for socialism with Chinese characteristics" with Xi Jinping at the "core" of the Party.

Some of the young students seemed to be engaged in the exhibition's content...

While others preferred to find a quiet corner to sit and play on their  phones....

Through the museum's many vast halls, a series of display boards, artworks and artefacts demonstrated the progress China has made since 1978, while celebrating the citizens and political leaders who have enabled that progress. The exhibition's content included all of China's paramount leaders from the past four decades, but there was a clear focus on the incumbent, Xi Jinping.

This was a bit confusing, as Xi was not himself an architect of Reform and Opening. What's more, he declared the start of a "New Era" at the most recent CCP national congress in October 2017, effectively marking a formal end to the Reform period[1]. So this, then, was the second mixed message that I encountered.

There were  hundreds of photos of Xi, usually arranged in a very formulaic way, whereby a large portrait would be placed in a high position surrounded by various other images, quotations and artefacts.

Xi's book, The Governance of China, was prominently showcased.

And there were 'artefacts' such as this basketball jersey.

Artistic impressions of Xi were also on display.

By this point, you may have forgotten what this exhibition was actually supposed to be about. To give you a sense of just how much of this exhibition on Reform and Opening was devoted to Xi Jinping, I have attempted here to include the majority of my photos in which he appears.

I think you'll agree, that's quite a lot of Xi! There were also photos of his predecessors, including the man most associated with Reform and Opening, Deng Xiaoping, as well as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

But the emphasis was very clearly and disproportionately on the current paramount leader. Having been in power for six years, Xi's relevance to an exhibition on the past forty years of reform in China is tenuous. While he has lived and worked as a cadre throughout the Reform period, Xi's presidency since 2012 has been characterised much more by its counter-reform measures than any reformist credentials.

Visitors gaze up at walls covered in photos of Xi, presented as the central character in China's "Reform and Opening" story.

So how is Xi's central role in this exhibition explained? According to the most recent official narrative, however, it is under the two national congresses led by Xi that China has moved decisively towards realising the "moderately prosperous society" that Deng set out as one of the original goals of his Reform and Opening policy.

Apart from all the political iconography, the exhibition also featured many photos and displays showing how ordinary Chinese people's lives had dramatically changed over the past four decades.

And in addition to photos, realist paintings depicted the workers who powered China's Reform era.

There were also installations showcasing China's technological advances in recent decades, from robotics and nuclear power to space travel, deep sea exploration and aeronautics.

Many of the displays themselves used state-of-the-art audiovisual technology, a sort of meta statement about how much China has progressed since Reform, and a reminder to the Chinese viewing public that they should feel proud of the nation's progress (an idea promoted under Xi Jinping's signature "Confidence Doctrine").

These stood in stark contrast to the very primitive Mao-era objects on display, illustrating thepace of change in China since 1978.

In the space of just a few decades, Chinese consumers have gone from using food stamps and cash, to using mobile phones to pay for almost all daily transactions.


[1] An argument most prominently made by Carl Minzer in his book, End of an Era.

Header image: A sign in front of the National Museum of China announces the "Great Changes" exhibition celebrating forty years since China undertook "Reform and Opening".