“Some people believe that I should not go and visit China, and learn about how we can join the Chinese residents of Brooklyn with the Chinese community,” Borough President Eric Adams trumpeted from Sunset Park’s Eighth Avenue early Sunday afternoon.
“NO WAY!” the crowd yelled.
“People might criticize me, people will attack me, but I’m going to fight to get an archway here in Brooklyn!” Adams added. “You deserve the right to the dignity and respect to have the archway. This is one of the largest growing populations, and you must have the respect you deserve, and I’m going to fight for that respect as your borough President. We will not have two Brooklyns. We will have one Brooklyn. And we will achieve success together!”
Rapturous applause followed. And a seemingly successful press conference–advocating for a “friendship arch” like those in Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Boston, but with no specific timetable for its arrival–reached its fun if formulaic conclusion.
But questions lingered–both about the motives for the trip and the borough’s embrace of a nation with a nefarious human rights policy.
When asked about the funding for his travels (by a non-profit whose coffers remain of mysterious origins, and for which it’s not clear a conflict-of-interest waiver was issued) the Borough President was curt. “Next question,” he offered on more than one occasion.
“We’re just doing our due diligence,” a reporter explained.
“Smearing is not due diligence,” Adams retorted. “But I understand.”
Meanwhile, sixty blocks north, another China-oritented event was not based on friendship, but antagonism.
“These works spotlight issues of freedom of expression, as well as individual and human rights both in China and globally,” read a statement by the Brooklyn Museum promoting their latest exhibit.
Ai WeiWei: According to What? runs through August 10th and is the first North American survey of the work of the provocative Chinese conceptual artist, sculptor, photographer, filmmaker, and activist. Mr. Ai, who once lived in Williamsburg, recently had his visa revoked and remains under constant surveillance in China.
These two events–a street fair celebrating Brooklyn-Chinese solidarity, and a prominent art exhibit criticizing the country at the same time–symbolize the tangled, mixed message the borough is sending to the People’s Republic.
But a few wrinkles also complicate any simple, bifurcated view. The Ai Weiwei exhibit is drawing many Chinese tourists along with those from other countries (and local residents). And China is long-known for pushing back on critiques of its human rights record, easily referencing Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay as a point of hypocrisy, along with a reminder of the cool trillion the United States owes them, to quiet the sirens.
Not to mention the museum’s own censorship: a diptych in the exhibit features the artist flipping the bird to the White House and Tiananmen Square, respectively. But only the Tiananmen Square photo is available for purchase in the museum’s store (as a standalone image, thereby distorting the context).
In some ways, the two simultaneous events are a mere continuation of the attenuated, push-pull relationship of Sino-American relations of the last four decades.
For Borough President Adams, the museum exhibit represents the borough’s commitment to free speech, while the archway’s focus is about establishing a relationship that can thrive, and helping the economic engine grow.
“The archway is not just a static structure that sits on our street. It is an extension of our friendship–it is a welcome mat. And it helps tourism,” Adams said. “We get 52 million tourists that visit the city, but they don’t always come to Brooklyn. It is a way of establishing a connection to the chinese community at home and abroad.”
What it boiled down to, Adams offered in conclusion, is an acknowledgement of Brooklyn’s immigrant Chinese population, not necessarily a condoning of their home country’s policies.
“Many people don’t realize, because we live outside of the community, and we don’t understand those things that are important to this community. This symbolizes a great deal of respect that we bring this archway in.”
Editor’s Note: We have reached out to the Chinese Consulate, the Brooklyn Museum, and several academic experts on Chinese-American relations, and can update this story with their comments if they respond.