China Misunderstood: Did We Contribute to Ai Weiwei’s Arrest?

Ai Weiwei.jpg

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Ai Weiwei holding debris from his newly built Shanghai studio after it was demolished by the authorities, January 11, 2011

Like many artists, Ai Weiwei enjoys provoking. It isn’t just his finger-to-the-Chinese-government images that he has become known for but also how he does it: his obsessive-compulsive documentation of himself in photos, blogs, tweets, and rants into a digital recorder. In a country obsessed with walls, he is a living challenge to the political system.

This has made Ai an important Chinese artist, but also a dream dissident. Instead of the usual opponent of the government in Beijing—a scrawny, soft-spoken person from the countryside who can’t speak English—Ai is a global man. He lived in New York City for a decade, speaks fluent English, is charismatic, admires Marcel Duchamp, and has had shows at leading western museums. His telling critique of the Olympics (the regime’s “fake smile” to the outside world) and investigation of the Sichuan earthquake became news stories as much his conceptual creations.

Now that he’s been arrested—he was detained April 3 and state media are murmuring about alleged “economic crimes”— Ai is the best-known victim of a broad crackdown on dissent that began early this year. The Tate Modern, which is hosting one of his shows, put up a banner calling on the Chinese government to “Release Ai Weiwei.” Artists and editorials have echoed the call. In a way that never happened for China’s Nobel laureate, the writer Liu Xiaobo, Ai’s detention has caught people’s attention, inside and outside China.

His charm is on display in Ai Weiwei’s Blog, a new translation of his online writings over a four-year period. They originally ran on the Chinese portal before his blog was banned in 2009. This was an important period for Ai as he went from being a respectable if critical force in the artistic community to a no-holds-barred dissident on a collision course with the government.

Knowing the sad ending makes the book oddly riveting. Initially, most postings had to do with art and architecture. He also wrote intelligently about photography, space, identity, the environment, and modernism. But his biting humor began to come out more frequently in 2006, for example in describing a meeting with pro-government cultural critics: “At first I was confused, and then I became bored to the point of madness, but near the end, when [one of the critics] brought up the names of certain Chinese musicians, I almost threw up.”

Starting in 2007, as the Beijing Olympics drew near, he began directing his anger toward the government. It is unclear why—Ai does not appear to be terribly introspective—but he suddenly realized that the games were going to be little more than a propaganda show. This was hardly an original insight but it consumed him with fury. Ai had been hired as a consultant to the Swiss architects who designed the main stadium, but now said the games were a fraud.

His influence in China peaked with his work on the Sichuan earthquake the following year. Along with others, he blamed the deaths of thousands of school children on shoddy building practices, holding the government responsible. He started a “citizens investigation” into the problems. But unlike most activists in China, Ai took a hostile approach, carrying cameras into government offices and sticking them into the faces of officials and almost delighting in the humiliation he caused these low-level bureaucrats. His rhetoric was always Manichean: the evil government constructing bad buildings to kill children. It was part of his attraction—at last, someone going for the jugular!—but the result was also predictable. His blog was soon banned. It was the government’s first major step against Ai, cutting him off from much of his Chinese audience.

Undeterred, Ai took to Twitter. This social-networking service is banned in China, meaning Ai was writing mainly for foreigners or the tiny percentage of Chinese who are able to get around the Great Firewall. His exploits became increasingly risky. He says he was beaten by police, requiring brain surgery in Germany. All the while he was tweeting and recording these events, at one point photographing a sack of blood in the German hospital and giving it the finger—a message, he said, for authorities back home. Later that year he took a picture of himself almost nude with the caption “Fuck your mother, party central committee.”

Some critics saw this as a brilliant gesture—Systemkritik as 24/7 performance art, aimed at exposing everything that was wrong in a vast country full of problems. But Ai had in the process also morphed into a very vulnerable kind of person: a Chinese dissident. Those with this status are a largely admirable group of lawyers, activists, and thinkers who want to change their country but are shut out of the system. Sooner or later, if they persist in directly challenging the government, they end up behind bars—as we’ve seen, for example, in the case of Liu Xiaobo. If it sounds simplistic or fatalistic it is also the reality of Beijing’s handling of outspoken critics over the past thirty-five years and wasn’t likely to change even for someone like Ai, whose father had been a popular poet of the early Communist era. Viewed dispassionately, Ai’s arrest was just a matter of time.


As inevitable as his arrest was, it is equally galling. As the essayist Zha Jianying wrote in a profile about her dissident brother, Zha Jianguo, a country like China should be able to tolerate a few outliers, no matter how flawed. That is certainly the right way to look at Ai’s case. Chinese officials talk of wanting to be a daguo—a great country—but part of becoming a world power means putting up with critics. Beijing’s mandarins also like to talk of using “soft power” to show how China has changed. But they don’t seem to realize that Ai had been an ideal ambassador, seeming proof that the government could take a couple on the chin. Instead, Beijing’s depressingly predictable reaction seems to validate Ai’s view of China as a country that “rejects freedom of both life and of spirit, a land that rejects fact, and fears the future.”

There’s no doubt that in recent years politics have become more oppressive—foreign journalists like myself experience some of the worst treatment in decades, are regularly harassed, and in some cases beaten or capriciously detained. NGOs are having trouble organizing and many have been shut down. And the government has launched a paranoid crackdown on lawyers and activists based on a call by a few foreign activists for a “Jasmine revolution” in China amid the unrest in the Middle East. The fact that hardly anyone here has bothered showing up for the revolution hasn’t prevented the government from detaining activists—kidnapping them, really, with some swept off the street and not heard from for months.

And yet this situation reflects only part of China’s reality. It seems impossible to live here without noting that intellectual life is far richer than it was a decade ago. You can’t assess the degree of cultural freedom by asking whether a literary salon or bookstore in the capital is open: go to a third- or fourth-tier city—Hefei, the capital of Anhui province, say, or Jurong, in the coastal province of Jiangsu—and talk to people. Compared to a decade ago many of them seem almost cosmopolitan. This is partly because of the Internet, but also the commercialization of the publishing industry, which now releases a flood of books each year, including many serious works in translation. Some works are taboo but they are a narrow sliver of the market. For the first time, non-English speaking Chinese can participate in international intellectual life.

Another huge change has taken place in religious activity. Closed for sixty years—or sometimes destroyed—temples, churches and mosques are being rebuilt at a breakneck pace. Oppression continues (see the recent harassment of the Shouwang house church in Beijing, which has been widely covered in the foreign press). But, overall, religious life is almost anarchically free. These are profound, long-term transformations—economists would call them “secular,” as opposed to the cyclical movements of oppression and relaxation that emanate from the Politburo. These deep-structure changes are not linear, inevitable or irreversible but, for now at least, they are happening. They are part of the story too.

Ai is an artist, not a political theorist. Sometimes artists must issue cris de coeur against the ruling elite. That’s fine and should have been Ai’s right. But by turning his response into a vulgar curse, he effectively negated his impact inside China. I covered the Falun Gong protests a decade ago and remember how many Chinese initially seemed sympathetic toward this group of mainly lower-middle class people who stood up for their right to practice their faith in the face of strong government repression. But this sympathy slowly evaporated as time went on and the Falun Gong adherents took to the streets again and again, getting beaten up, dragged to prisons, let out, then returning again to protest. Few ordinary people I knew or heard of could understand what they wanted—why pursue a militant course that was doomed to failure? Few went so far as to say that the protesters got what they deserved, but many Chinese were mystified.

So too Ai. When I’ve described him to people outside the cocoon of China’s cosmopolitan elite, they usually ask me what he wanted. If it was just to show that the government could be a bully, no one thought that was news. Such a response may imply a lack of consciousness about individual rights and civil disobedience, and so partly validates Ai’s pessimistic view of China. But it also reveals a pragmatic sensibility among many ordinary Chinese: many of them seem to see their country as more than the corrupt police state that Ai was trying to expose with such vitriol, or at least think that there are better ways of channeling the frustrations about the government that they may well share with Ai.


Perhaps this simply reflects my concerns as a journalist pondering the ethics of covering a situation like this, but I wonder if we don’t also deserve some of the blame. We lionized Ai, applauding him as he pursued an ever more dangerous path with Beijing—one that could only end badly.

Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006–2009 has just been published by The MIT Press.

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