As China gears up to host this year's Olympic Games, we asked Beijing-based journalist Christina Larson to file a series of dispatches giving us an on-the-ground perspective. She will be posting them here on the Plank over the next few weeks:

The Chinese government recently informed Chinese-American artist Zhang Hongtu that one of his paintings would not be allowed to enter the country. Zhang, born in China's western Gansu province and raised in a Muslim family, immigrated to New York more than two decades ago and now works out of a studio in Brooklyn. (His portrait of Mao on a Quaker Oat's package appeared on the cover of TNR's China issue last month.)

The restricted painting in question (right, top) depicts the iconic Bird's Nest stadium--where the Olympics will kick off on Friday--in a style this writer finds reminiscent of Picasso's mournful Guernica (right, bottom). The writing on the painting, in Chinese and English, reads: "One world, one dream," "Tibet," and "Human Right."

The painting, slated to be part of an exhibit at Beijing's Lin & Keng gallery, was detained by the Customs Office in July. Typical bureaucratic candor was in order when Beijing customs officials tried to explain their decision. As Zhang wrote to me this week:

There were three funny and stupid reasons from the Customs which stopped my painting into China: 

1. The colors of the painting are too dull;
2. The image of the Bird's Nest is no good;
3. The words on the painting are not acceptable.

I was disappointed---but not surprised.

After time in bureaucratic limbo, the painting has at last been released in Taipei. The irony for the Chinese government, of course, is that controversy will only ensure more people see the artwork. Hullabaloo is free publicity--a point not lost on Zhang, even if officialdom remains clueless:

I am still disappointed about what the Chinese government has been doing on the "free speech" issue and on the Olympics promises, but at the same time I have received so many support after this Bird's Nest painting got censored by the Customs ... there will be more people seeing this painting, more than a painting only displayed on the wall in a gallery.

--Christina Larson