06/03/2014 05:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Hidden Injustices, Irreconcilable Contradictions

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Glance at one of Liu Bolin's works of art and you might just miss him. Standing camouflaged among backdrops of imperial palaces, newsstands and Communist Party slogans, Liu disappears into whichever scene he chooses to present. But once you spot him, it's hard to focus on anything else.

As a foreigner visiting China in the late 1990s, I only had a chance to glance at the country. Amazed by a nation in obvious growth mode, I was blind to the contradictions that growth posed to society. It wasn't until I later lived as an expat in Beijing and Shanghai that I was able to sift through the noise, and begin to see the hidden injustices and resulting confusion that Liu's art encapsulates.

In 2004, I was working in Shanghai for a US-invested company which operates international standard hospitals across China. This was only a few years after the period Liu references when discussing his "Xia Gang" work. As China transitioned from a planned economy to a market economy, the government dismantled its "Iron Rice Bowl" system which provided cradle-to-grave security. Not only did 21 million people lose their jobs, but they also frequently lost their housing, pension and medical benefits. Patients without health insurance would now need to pay in advance before seeing a doctor - even in emergency cases.

A friend in the medical equipment business was visiting a local Shanghai hospital when a Chinese patient arrived. He had suffered a heart attack and needed emergency surgery. Later, a surgeon emerged from the operating room to discuss the patient's condition with his family. His arteries were blocked in several areas and he would need three stents to have a decent chance of surviving. But the patient lacked health insurance, and his family could only afford the cost of one stent. My friend looked on as the doctor reviewed with the family members the pros and cons of placing the single stent in one spot versus another, and then solicited their immediate decision.

Liu's "Chinese Noodles" and "Plasticizer" speak to the ongoing food safety concerns in China, and highlight the dangers that a 'growth at all costs' system can pose to a country's citizens and consumers. At our hospital, the majority of patients were expats or wealthy Chinese, since foreign-invested hospitals could not participate in the local insurance system. A number of expats adopted Chinese babies, and we often performed the required health exams. Over time we developed a relationship with an orphanage in rural Henan province, providing pro bono surgeries to children with congenital defects and donating infant formula from the US. But despite the formula donations, children at the orphanage were still malnourished and underdeveloped. Upon further investigation, we learned that the children had not received the formula because the orphanage managers had been stealing it to sell on the black market. The managers then cut corners and fed the children local formula that was watered down, stunting their growth, and in some cases, preventing their adoption.

It was Liu's first work, portraying the forced demolishment of his art camp which I found most captivating. Buildings throughout China regularly find themselves spray-painted with the foreboding "chai" or "demolish" character. In some cases the government wants to destroy structures where activities considered 'subversive' occur. In others, local developers or officials profit when homes are razed to build more lucrative developments on the land. And in yet others, old buildings must come down to support the country's modernization and urbanization. But in each case, migrant workers from China's poorest provinces are most often performing the actual labor. Today, an estimated 260 million migrant workers provide China with the cheap labor it needs to build thriving cities. But because of the country's hukou system, which ties public benefits to the place of household registration, China's migrants cannot access education, pension or medical services in their adopted cities.

On our Shanghai hospital's opening day, a group of migrant workers showed up in the Emergency Room. Their colleague had slipped on construction scaffolding and fallen four stories to the ground. They brought him to a couple of local hospitals, but were refused admittance. Without a Shanghai hukou, or resident permit, this worker from Anhui province was not entitled to receive local medical benefits. His family lived back in Anhui, and his colleagues did not have funds to cover the treatment. The workers learned about our hospital and rushed over, thinking that an international hospital might not turn them away. But it was too late. Their colleague was dead on arrival.

For me, Liu's artwork gives face to the migrant worker from Anhui, the cardiac patient in Shanghai and the orphans in Henan - those who have struggled with the contradictions in Chinese society and have remained invisible during China's development process. But these circumstances are not unique to China. As Liu remarks, "any culture has its irreconcilable contradictions." Often we are just too wrapped up in our own societies to see them. Sometimes it takes fading into the background as a quiet observer to bring these contradictions into sharp focus.

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