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Ai Weiwei

The Chinese Art of Silencing Dissent

‘I write condemnations of this unjust world’ – Ai Qing, poet and father of Ai Weiwei (written in a Chinese Nationalist prison, 14 January 1933)

Any high-profile Chinese who effectively tells the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to get fucked is unlikely to stay free of persecution for long. Ai Weiwei, the world-famous artist and designer who is best known for his international exhibitions and as a co-designer of the iconic ‘Bird’s Nest’ sports stadium in Beijing, ran the gauntlet of criticising, or even ridiculing, the CCP for longer than most people, including his friend the literary critic and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who has been in prison (again) since 2009 for also advocating basic human rights and freedoms. But on 3 April 2011 the CCP took Ai Weiwei off the street and into secret detention, stopping him at Beijing airport as he prepared to fly out to Hong Kong. He was held for over eighty days, and finally released on 22 June, just a few days before Premier Wen Jiabao flew to Britain for a high-profile state visit and to sign a series of major economic deals.

The secretive machinations of Chinese official politics, and the opaque nature of China’s tightly controlled legal system, mean the reasons for Ai Weiwei’s arrest remain open to speculation, although the official accusation was tax evasion. But behind the stony facade of economic crime it seems obvious that the CCP could no longer tolerate Ai Weiwei’s attempts to embarrass Chinese officials and hold them to account. Vaccinating ordinary Chinese people against contamination by the Arab Spring was also a likely factor in Ai Weiwei’s arrest.

For some time before his arrest Ai Weiwei had lambasted official censorship and popular apathy, and had spoken out in defence of individual rights and against official corruption and abuses of power. Since the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 he had campaigned against a system that led to children being crushed to death in poorly constructed schools. Increasingly his artworks were being viewed as too provocative and impertinent, and the CCP does not respond kindly to direct challenges or satire.

Histories of Threat and Iconoclasm

Ai Weiwei may be a troublesome individual, but actions against him should be understood in the broader context of Chinese history and the CCP’s attitude to dissent. 1 July 2011 marked the 90th anniversary of the CCP. At its inception it was a tiny underground movement predominantly composed of urban intellectuals inspired by foreign ideology. This clandestine circle of librarians, academics and literary critics eventually rose to complete domination of the world’s most populous nation, speaking on behalf of the mass of peasants, workers and soldiers, and today also representing China’s bureaucratic elite, entrepreneurs and the new rich. From a total of approximately twenty members in Beijing and Shanghai in 1921, the CCP has grown to a current membership of roughly 75 million, with members in every province, city, township and village.

The CCP has internalised its own experience of suffering as an underground organisation for many years in its torturous growth to achieving power. It also remains conscious of imperial China’s long history of secret societies and popular rebellions. As a result of these visceral personal and historical resources, the CCP deeply suspects the threat posed to established authority by small, secretive and religiously motivated or ideologically inspired movements and charismatic leaders.

To contemporary Western observers of China, the CCP overacts appallingly and counter-productively to qigong practitioners and self-cultivators in the syncretic religious movement known as Falun Gong; to Christians in underground churches; to human rights lawyers or activists such as Liu Xiaobo; to ordinary citizens petitioning for justice; and to netizens (online activists), sympathisers with the Arab Spring, ethnic minorities and iconoclasts or provocative artists such as Ai Weiwei. But the CCP remembers what it achieved as a determined minority after decades of suppression by warlords, Nationalists and Japanese invaders. The historians and theoreticians within the CCP also know that emperors in past dynasties were shaken or dethroned by religious fanatics, bands of sworn brothers or peasant rebels who harnessed widespread despair or dissatisfaction. The Ming dynasty fell to a peasant rebellion, and both Buddhist and Muslim uprisings rattled the Qing. In the mid-nineteenth century, Hong Xiuquan, the self-proclaimed younger brother of Jesus Christ, led the Taiping Rebels in a mass movement against the Qing. That civil war alone resulted in more than ten million casualties.

The CCP views sectarian movements like Falun Gong in the context of previous religious, superstitious and millenarian movements within China. It was shocked in April 1999 when Falun Gong suddenly appeared at the gates of the Central Committee’s residential compound of Zhongnanhai as a broad-based movement willing to agitate for the interests of its leader Li Hongzhi and its many adherents. Ten thousand protesters materialised on the Party’s doorstep in the largest public demonstration in China since the 1989 Protest Movement on Tiananmen Square. When the CCP investigated this phenomenon it found to its horror that Falun Gong had adherents across the nation and inside the Party itself. Falun Gong emerged in the Chinese ideational and belief vacuum created by the discrediting of Maoism in the Cultural Revolution, the killing of protesters in 1989, and the demise of official Marxism in the ruins of world communism in the 1990s. Falun Gong was swiftly banned and labelled a ‘heretical organisation’.

When considering other threats to its hegemony and survival, the CCP―which in its first decades of existence relied so heavily on European socialist texts, Soviet Party models of organisation and Comintern advisers and support―views human rights, religious freedom, democracy and even iconoclastic or ‘indecent art’ as foreign-inspired (or specifically Western-led) attacks on the CCP and China itself.

In a country with over 450 million internet users and literally billions of micro-blogs each year, traditional Chinese censorship cannot cope with the traffic of information or work with the efficiency of the Maoist period. This is despite the notorious Great Firewall of China, the fact that Ai Weiwei amongst others had his popular and critical blog closed down on sina.com, and despite the allegedly state-sanctioned hacking as well as the official licensing problems and censorship constraints that necessitated Google’s withdrawal from China’s mainland in 2010. Nonetheless, the Chinese state monitors carefully and censors when it can. On 23 May 2011, for example, my television screen in Tianjin repeatedly went blank when the BBC World Service interviewed Lobsang Sangay, the political successor to the Dalai Lama for Tibetans in exile. Each time the interview was repeated, the screen suddenly went blank again and the sound went off.

Despite its extensive and expensive surveillance network, the Chinese state cannot censor or monitor every micro-blog, text message or mobile phone call, but the state does ensure that it acts decisively and with a massive show of force when users of new social media attempt to move into the physical world of organising rallies or public acts of defiance. This was seen when huge numbers of police and internal security forces appeared at a meeting point for a few Chinese individuals inspired to gather in the street by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution of February 2011. What is considered an overreaction in the West is a necessary security measure to the CCP. Their logic is that there will be no Jasmine Revolution if all buds are carefully and systematically nipped before they can bloom. They do not want a repeat of the Taiping Rebellion, the Protest Movement of 1989, or a civil war like the current conflict in Libya.

China’s New Social Contract

Ai Weiwei is no Mao Zedong. He acts openly and peacefully, blogging rather than blasting. His international supporters (and the media who report on his art, his social activities and his problems with Chinese officials) are not secret revolutionaries or clandestine organisations like the Comintern funnelling guns or ideological weapons to programmatic, disciplined and nationally coordinated subversives. Ai Weiwei’s activism exposes the abuses of the Chinese state system, such as the official corruption and shoddy work that led to the deaths of thousands of children in the Sichuan earthquake. He printed the names of the dead children on the walls of his Beijing studio, and sought legal redress on behalf of grieving parents. In return for Ai Weiwei’s artistic independence and peaceful social criticism of the Chinese system, he has been abused by that system, beaten up while trying to speak to a Sichuan court, denied a permit for his Shanghai studio (which was then demolished), constantly monitored and then held in secret custody for eighty days.

After Ai Weiwei’s detention and the subsequent search of his home and Beijing studio, he was confined in a secret location and vilified in the pro-Beijing press of Hong Kong’s Wen Wei Po as a ‘plagiarist’, ‘bigamist’, ‘fraud’, disseminator of ‘indecent images’ and perpetrator of unspecified ‘economic crimes’. His wife, Lu Qing, was allowed only limited access to him to provide medicine for his diabetes and hypertension. On his release the normally outspoken Ai Weiwei was subject to a gag order preventing him communicating with the media, and his movements were prescribed. He is not allowed to leave Beijing and he has reportedly agreed to pay the Chinese government 12 million yuan (AUS $1.8 million) in taxes and fines.

In addition to the modern weapon of arbitrarily enforced tax law, the CCP uses tactics against religious groups, democracy advocates and individuals like Ai Weiwei based on models from pre-modern China or from the time of the CCP’s own clandestine and violent rise to power. But conditions in China today are completely different. Since the suppression of the Protest Movement of 1989 and the instructive collapse of the Soviet Union into poverty and crime in the early 1990s, and with the rapid expansion of China’s economy and improvements in the standard of living for most Chinese in the past two decades, there has been a tacit agreement between the Chinese people and the CCP. Ordinary people can pursue private wealth, but they cannot directly challenge CCP authority. This implied social contract has been stunningly successful.

If China is taken completely out of the equation, in the past thirty years the world has achieved very little in alleviating absolute poverty. The hundreds of millions who have risen above bare subsistence in this period are overwhelmingly Chinese, and anyone familiar with China recognises the extraordinary and impressive transformations achieved since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. China has a great deal of which to be proud, and ordinary Chinese people have much improved calorie intakes, housing conditions, employment opportunities, transport and communication networks, travel options, and education facilities and pathways than ever before. But Chinese society is far more unequal than societies such as Australia’s, and the costs of rapid development have been extremely high in terms of pollution, environmental degradation, inadequate social welfare, the ubiquity of fake (and often dangerous) goods and corruption.

China is making important strides with solar energy and other green practices, but as more coal-fired generators are built to meet the needs of rapid urbanisation and increased consumption, and as more cars pour out of the factories and onto the newly built roads, China faces intense pressures from the weight of its own development. China is a land of billionaires, luxury goods, and conspicuous consumption, with China’s economy now the world’s second largest after the United States. But the ordinary Chinese person’s standard of living is well below the OECD average, and to reach that level would take an enormous toll on the planet and is inconceivable given present circumstances and population size. Moreover, many of the ‘sustainable’ initiatives across China are more assertion than reality, just as equality and constitutional rights are more theory than fact. Tensions and fault lines exist in the Chinese polity, but the lack of such things as critical and independent media, an independent judicial system, and the opportunity to stand freely for election and to vote, mean that China does not have the pressure valves of civil society or a history and culture of public scrutiny of the CCP and accountable government.

China’s tensions and fault lines occasionally burst into protest or even violence, including the murder of brutal or corrupt local officials who expropriate land, extort taxes, solicit bribes or harshly enforce birth control policies. Nonetheless, despite tens of thousands of annual protests that take place across China at the grassroots level, there is no social movement or political organisation that seeks to unify these small acts of resistance into a coherent, ideologically driven and oppositional force to the CCP. The people largely accept that things have improved for China as a whole and in most cases for themselves as individuals or as families. They believe that disunity, widespread violence and chaos are to be avoided. Peasants are not rallying around a new Mao Zedong to surround and defeat the cities, they are moving in great numbers to the cities to make the most of opportunities to advance themselves and their families, contributing to the greatest and most rapid mass urbanisation movement in human history.

Killing a Chicken to Scare the Monkey

Ai Weiwei has never advocated turmoil or violence. But he is, in Chinese official minds, an impudent monkey who has too openly and directly affronted and insulted the CCP. Unlike many Chinese people from both imperial times and today, Ai Weiwei did not self-censor. As he said to the documentary filmmaker Alison Klayman: ‘If you’re too afraid to turn on your camera, it’s like they have already taken it away’.

Before being seized at the airport, Ai Weiwei was a friend and collaborator of the jailed human rights gadfly Liu Xiaobo who also spoke out against the CCP imprisoning Liu. Ai Weiwei tried unsuccessfully to represent Liu at the Nobel ceremony in Sweden, delivering a major slap in the face to the CCP. Not only did Ai Weiwei out-Spielberg Steven Spielberg by pulling out of the organisation committee of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but as a co-designer of the Bird’s Nest, his withdrawal and subsequent public criticism delivered another slap in the face to the CCP on the eve of its biggest global event of the decade. He aggressively publicised the death toll from the Sichuan earthquake and held authorities responsible for the criminal state of the infrastructure, thereby delivering another slap in the face to the CCP when the avuncular premier Wen Jiabao had been personally visiting and showing sympathy to the earthquake victims and expressing the Party’s care and compassion to the ordinary people. In his own art practice Ai Weiwei also produced works considered indecent or insulting, such as the statue of a strong arm (currently exhibited in Hong Kong, reportedly the only Chinese territory where his works are on public display) with a hand giving a middle finger salute.

In a further (and perhaps decisive) insult to the CCP, anyone familiar with homophones in the Chinese language will note the way an Ai Weiwei text has found its way into popular parlance. This subversion of the language may be intolerable to the CCP, a self-important party that shares the authoritarian’s lack of humour and a complete refusal to tolerate satire or impudence. A common insult in Chinese is Cao ni ma: ‘Fuck your mother’. But very similar sounds can mean ‘Grass mud horse’ or alpaca.

A photo of a naked Ai Weiwei with a toy alpaca blocking his penis from public view has the phrase, Cao ni ma dang zhongyang, ‘The alpaca blocks the middle’. But these basic sounds, with different characters, mean ‘Fuck your mother, the Party Central Committee’.
A photo of a naked Ai Weiwei with a toy alpaca blocking his penis from public view has the phrase, Cao ni ma dang zhongyang, ‘The alpaca blocks the middle’. But these basic sounds, with different characters, mean ‘Fuck your mother, the Party Central Committee’.

The Chinese have a phrase expressing the exemplary nature of punishment designed to keep people in line: to kill a chicken to scare the monkey. To mix animal metaphors, we can see that Ai Weiwei is no chicken. In recent years he has spoken out at great personal risk in the interests of transparency, accountability and justice. He has done this repeatedly and bravely, having seen his own father, the poet Ai Qing, ‘reformed through labour’ in remote regions and officially silenced by the CCP for twenty years because he defended the writer Ding Ling in the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957 and because his own literary works were then deemed unacceptable. Shortly after his father’s official rehabilitation and return both to Beijing and to print after decades of enforced silence, Ai Weiwei wrote posters on the short-lived Democracy Wall of 1978. (This rallying point for the views of ordinary people became famous for the ‘Fifth Modernisation’ of democracy, demanded on behalf of all Chinese people by the Beijing electrician and former Red Guard Wei Jingsheng, who ended up in prison for fifteen years.) Ai Weiwei has continued his social critique despite the state suppression of his blog and the beating he suffered in 2009 which necessitated an operation to relieve a brain hemorrhage. So he is not a chicken. But he is a naughty monkey.

Like the mischievous monkey Sun Wukong in the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, Ai Weiwei did not have as much freedom or immunity as his talent, wealth and status as an internationally recognised artist may have suggested. Sun Wukong could leap 1000 miles, but when he thought he had flown to the edge of the world he realised that he had not even jumped out of the Buddha’s palm. When Sun Wukong behaved too independently, spontaneously or facetiously, a priest’s controlling prayer could tighten the golden bands on monkey’s skull, rendering him speechless and immobile. Despite Ai Weiwei’s international profile and his years living in New York in the 1980s, he remained Chinese and subject to Chinese control. Despite his wealth and exhibitions scheduled for London, New York, Berlin and Hong Kong in 2011, when it came time for the CCP to tighten the bands on Ai Weiwei he realised that he could not leave China or determine his own fate.

When Ai Weiwei was one year old, his father Ai Qing was labelled a Rightist. He accompanied his parents into internal exile in Manchuria and then to the remote western region of Xinjiang. He learnt at first hand the extremes of China’s temperatures and the depths of Chinese poverty. He saw how his father, one of China’s most famous writers, was denied the right to publish for twenty years. In the dangerous craziness of the Cultural Revolution Ai Weiwei even helped Ai Qing burn the poet’s prized collection of books, because Chinese classics and foreign ideas were deemed enemies of the revolution. Like his father, who was imprisoned both by the Nationalists (who he opposed) and by the Communists (who he supported), Ai Weiwei is known as someone who smiles and laughs a great deal. But both know personal pain and the suffering of their societies. Ai Weiwei also feels responsible for the suffering of others, including friends and associates detained during his arrest. On 9 August he broke his silence (outside China) by tweeting details of the incarceration and subsequent heart attack of the designer Liu Zhenggang. At the time of writing, it is yet to be known if he will suffer retribution from the Chinese state for this act.

Avoiding Mistakes of the Past

While Ai Weiwei remained hidden away in detention, China was suffering its worst drought in fifty years. If China can escape this drought without mass starvation, this will be a significant milestone in Chinese history, where more than 1830 major famines have struck the people since 108 BC, including the worst famine in recorded history, which killed more than thirty million people from 1959 to 1961. If China succeeds in addressing the current drought’s ravages, the Chinese will again be justly proud of their social and economic transformations achieved in the past three decades. At present, despite hardships confronting the people, the land, and the rivers of China, there are no signs of mass starvation in mid-2011. China is not doomed to repeat its past; not from the imperial period and not from the famine years that immediately succeeded Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

China need neither repeat its past concerning its treatment of religious minorities, democracy advocates, iconoclasts or artists. Conditions have changed markedly since imperial China and since the heyday of Maoist orthodoxy, including access to information and education, the relationship between the individual and the state, and the relationship between China and other states. Avoiding violence and the collapse of China’s economy is in the interests of all Chinese and most foreigners, not least of all Australians. Ai Weiwei does not advocate the violent dissolution of China; he seeks China’s peaceful extension of rights and opportunities. In the year of its 90th anniversary, if the CCP can help to steer China through a course of economic development without famine, and without ecological degradation that threatens China’s rapid expansion, then in ten years’ time the CCP will be able to look forward to a glorious centennial. But where will Ai Weiwei be in a decade from now, and will he be able to speak freely?

Glen Jennings previously studied in China, was an Asialink fellow in 2009, and currently works with international students for Trinity College Foundation Studies at the University of Melbourne.