APEC Comes to Honolulu

Mural outside of Nextdoor in Chinatown, Honolulu by artist Vince Ricafort

In order to simplify the following blog for Twitter users, here it is in less than 144 characters:

HNL C&C selling us out. APEC not for us. If u free markets, pls. free people- economic conversation not in vacuum. #YOURSHIRTISSTUPID

In November, Honolulu will host the 22nd annual Asian Pacific Economic Conference (APEC). Over the years, the member economies have sought three goals: trade and investment liberalization, business facilitation, and economic and technical cooperation. Recently, though, critics of the conference have come from all sides, arguing that the proliferation of bilateral trade agreements between impatient member countries makes the whole thing irrelevant, that maybe freeing markets before you free people is jumping the gun (ahem China), and the obvious one: Trade liberalization tends to lead to gross economic inequality. Adding to the irrelevance argument is that India, after not being let in on APEC talks after years of being held at the door,  joined the East Asia Summit, on its sixth year this October in Bali.

APEC goes down in a different city every year, and not all cities are cool with paying for a party they aren’t invited to. The 1997 meeting was held in Vancouver, Canada, and got controversial when mounted police tagged the crowd with pepper spray. The 2007 conference in Sydney, Australia included a $150 million investment and a “great wall of Sydney” that was crashed by a local prank TV show with a rented limousine and a cast member dressed as recently deceased Osama Bin Laden. American media covered last year’s event in Yokohama, Japan with about as much enthusiasm as they covered the Commonwealth Games.

Organizers have a tradition of dressing the leaders in local garb, leading to what is now over 20 years of goofy photos of middle-aged men in indigenous outfits draped over pricy suits, creating an awkward slideshow that precedes any TV coverage. For Honolulu’s event, a call went out several months ago to local designers, so we can expect some more begrudging awkwardness. Personally, I’m looking forward to a photo of Hu Jintao dressed like a Mililani uncle on his way to tee time.

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The Hawaii Tourism Authority has already allocated a minimum of $28 million to pay for security and programming. That is certainly not the final tally. Regarding a return on investment, the numbers do not look good. O’ahu is already host to billions of dollars in American military infrastructure as well as the site of America’s Pacific Command, making it unlikely that further investment in “security” will yield anything back to the local economy. Earlier this year, commanders were moments away from scrambling fighter jets after a local man led police on a slow chase up the street of the President’s vacation home after failing to stop for having expired tags and an old warrant. So unless international leaders are going to be sleeping on the West side of O’ahu and taking the rail to town, Honolulu residents should not expect much back from HTA’s investment.

This year’s APEC has a specific back story for local artists and critics of power. On April 3, internationally famous artist and critic of the Chinese government Ai Wei Wei was detained in a Hong Kong airport for undisclosed reasons. Ai has been doing this for years. Instead of hiding from China’s version of COINTELPRO, he simply put all of his daily activities and views on his blog. After initially designing the “bird’s nest” for Beijing’s Olympic hosting, he abandoned the project, saying to other artists, “It’s disgusting. I don’t like anyone who shamelessly abuses their profession, who makes no moral judgment.” Ai Wei Wei’s profile in the international arts scene couldn’t be any bigger, as he was arrested on the heels of his acclaimed Sunflower Seeds exhibit at the Tate Modern in London, with current exhibition Zodiac Heads going up in New York’s Central Park.

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An international groundswell of artists has sprung up in Ai’s defense. His stenciled image has appeared on the sides of Chinese governmental buildings in Hong Kong and mainland China. In April, over 2,000 people marched in Hong Kong; by May, numerous arts communities around the world had signed up and sent letters. Here in Honolulu, Vince Ricafort’s addition to the chorus of discontent went up on Hotel Street. For Vince’s piece, he altered an image of the artist from 1995, when Ai dropped a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty urn, in part to discuss the Chinese government’s destruction of its people’s history. For the mural, the urn was turned into a Coca Cola bottle, adding a little globalized economic analysis on top of the original piece.

APEC continues to attempt conversations about open markets in a vacuum, disregarding discussions of human rights and its own growing irrelevance. This time, Honolulu will pay for the party.

For more reading on APEC:

Does APEC Matter?
eastasiaforum.org