Learning From Ai Weiwei

China’s Dissident Extraordinaire

The Arab Spring did not quite make it to China.  There, the Jasmine Revolution met a premature end, halted at the cyberspace stage of indiscriminate calls for action.  The Chinese government responded swiftly to the protests, dispatching police officers to major cities and launching the largest wave of arrests and detentions since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. It has since detained or arrested over one hundred activists, lawyers, bloggers, artists, and writers.  The culmination of this crackdown came with the arrest and three-month detention of the prominent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in April 2011.

Ai’s 2010 “Sunflower Seeds” installation at the Tate Modern Art Gallery, comprised of over one hundred million hand-painted, porcelain sunflower seeds

One of China’s most famous artists – and a designer of the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics) – Ai had come under increasing scrutiny for his provocative artwork and pointed, criticism of the Chinese government.  He regularly railed against the government in his blog – which authorities shut down in 2009 – and Twitter posts, and had amassed a huge online following.  The Chinese government, in its renewed effort to silence the country’s most strident activists, arrested Ai for alleged “economic crimes,” or tax evasion.

The Chinese government soon discovered it had made an error in its political calculus: an international outpouring of condemnation followed the arrest.  Ai, after all, is a renowned artist whose work has been exhibited in museums, galleries, and art festivals worldwide.  Figuring that the political costs of continuing to detain him were too high, the government released him after three months, supposedly “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from.”  His release came as somewhat of a shock to the rest of the world, as it is a triumph of public pressure over objectionable state actions.  But now that Ai has been released, the question remains: what should Chinese civil society and the international community do about other, lesser-known activists caught in the throes of the government’s recent clampdown?

Ai Weiwei has been lucky compared to other outspoken Chinese activists.  Although the government has placed him under strict bail conditions, including a prohibition on making any public statements, he was spared the ten-year prison sentence that the Chinese government routinely doles out to dissidents.  Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese writer, human rights activist, and recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, is currently serving an eleven-year sentence for alleged subversion of state powers.  Many of those arrested in the recent crackdown, including prominent human rights lawyers, remain unaccounted for.

According to Human Rights Watch, less visible Chinese activists remain “at high risk” of torture.  It is these individuals who deserve the most concern: with no international pressure exerted on their behalf, the Chinese government can imprison them indefinitely.  Ai, in defiance of his bail conditions, criticized the treatment of four business colleagues who were held in detention and called for the release of two Chinese activists in Twitter postings, explaining that “if you don’t speak for [them], not only you’re the sort that doesn’t speak up for fairness and justice, you have no self-respect.”  He understood, as he later told The New York Times, that his colleagues were subjected to harsher treatment than he was because they were unknown to the general public.

However, there is no doubt that Ai’s role as a public critic of the Chinese government has been diminished – according to Chinese law, the police can pursue his case for up to a year after his release, during which he must tread water far more cautiously.  He hasn’t lost any of his audacity–he is appealing the exorbitant $2.4 million bill the government charged him for tax evasion.  But a palpable void of civic criticism now exists. Ai, who brazenly voiced the concerns and complaints of average Chinese citizens against their government, has been muffled by his bail conditions.  What the international community can do now is to take some advice from the provocateur himself, adopting the same fearless, impudent attitude that comes so naturally to him.

Ai’s 2011 “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” outdoor installation in New York City, unveiled while he was in detention

Ai has long demonstrated a dogged resolve to expose the absurdity of the Chinese government’s actions–to call them out for what they are, and to obstruct, or at least mock, their intentions.  Although he helped design the Bird’s Nest Stadium, he refused to attend the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics, calling it a “pretend smile” to distract the world from serious internal problems.  When the Chinese government refused to release the names of the thousands of schoolchildren who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai initiated a grassroots investigation that eventually published the names of nearly all the children.  And when, perhaps as a result, the government installed surveillance cameras outside his studio in Beijing, Ai turned his own camera on them, posting photos of them on his Twitter feed and incorporating them into his artwork.  He exhibited similar pluck when he confronted the Sichuan police, who had beaten him a year earlier, to file a complaint about his injuries.

Ai was aware that the whole process was futile, but he insisted that “you have to work through the system and show it in all its detail…that’s the only way that you can ultimately make a critique.”  In another instance, after the police began filming a dinner party Ai had organized outside a restaurant that was attracting supporters, he sent his personal videographer to document them.  These small acts of defiance are artworks in themselves, and much of their power comes from their deliberately irreverent, preposterous nature.  Ai has transformed his political outrage into art, such that art and his everyday life have become practically indistinguishable.

Considering that many activists from last year’s crackdown are still missing, and that China’s suppression of dissent continues unabated, the Chinese people, as well as the rest of the world, would be well-advised to take a few cues from Ai Weiwei.  Bold, sustained, and occasionally dangerous action is necessary to make any progress on the matter – and can even be done, as in Ai’s case, with a dose of humor and sarcasm.  Without fierce condemnation from the international community, China will continue to imprison dissidents at its will – and these daring, but mostly nameless individuals will continue to suffer.  Few are fortunate to be as famous, widely admired, and well-connected as Ai Weiwei.

But they all share the same core values that inform Ai’s work–values that their government has long failed to appreciate.


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