For all its posturing on the international market, unlimited foreign aid, (at a price) and flirting with capitalism, China remains the biggest openly anti Democratic nation in the world. Anyone who doesn’t “go with the flow” is openly harassed or at worse thrown into prison.
Now, as we see a wave of protests sweep through the Middle East and Africa, China has decided to rein in those who openly criticise the government there.
Chief among them is the artist, architect and writer, Ai Weiwei.
Now, I’m no lover of modern art; God knows, a pile of bricks is a pile of bricks to me. However, when art is used as a form of open protest against a totalitarian regime then I’m all for it, and that’s how I stumbled on the name Ai Weiwei.
The son of one of China’s most famous poets, Ai Qing, a Communist Party member revered today despite being sent to a labour camp during the Cultural Revolution, Ai Weiwei could have lived a comfortable life in the ever changing Chinese republic. However, he used the freedom his father’s party associations brought to help him campaign against the injustices of the Chinese government.
Ai Weiwei is a most unusually brave man indeed. After catching the eye of the authorities by designing his own studio and having it built in 60 days, he was asked to help design Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Olympics stadium. Having successfully concluded his contract with the Chinese Government, he publicly lambasted the China Olympics as being “fake and hypocritical”; an act that did not endear him to anyone in power. The studio has since been demolished by the authorities, for lack of planning permission.
He then openly supported an online campaign to compile the names of children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, many in schools whose construction was allegedly compromised due to corruption. He would phone up government officials and demand information because the Chinese Authorities, embarrassed by the disaster had refused to give out the names of even THE SCHOOLS that had been destroyed. Afterwards, Ai Weiwei produced Remembering, a wall of Chinese text made from children’s backpacks that covered the facade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany. The text read: “‘She lived happily for seven years in this world”. They were the words of a mother whose daughter died in the quake.
In August 2009, he was beaten up by police in Sichuan while trying to testify for Tan Zuoren, a dissident facing trial. The result of the beating, which he managed to catch on tape, was a brain hemorrhage that was treated in a Munich hospital.
His frequently censored blog was read by 10,000 people a day until it was shut down by the authorities in May 2009. In October 2010 Ai Weiwei unveiled his latest work, a carpet of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern gallery in London.
He described the work as a commentary on mass production and a question about the role of an individual in society.
In December 2010, days before the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony for imprisoned campaigner Liu Xiaobo, he and several other campaigners were told they could not travel abroad.
And now he has been imprisoned.
No official information has been given about his whereabouts since he was detained on Sunday (3rd April), but China’s state news agency, Xinhua, released a one-line report saying he was under investigation by police for suspected economic crimes; a hint that he could be tried as a common criminal and not a political offender.
It doesn’t take the brain of an Arch Bishop to work out what his real crime is in the eyes of the leaders of the second largest economy in the world. A land that, in his words, “sacrifices people’s rights and happiness to make a profit”.
His crime is free will, integrity and a public conscience.
“Ai Weiwei is a “maverick” who “chooses to have a different attitude from ordinary people toward law”, the Chinese newspaper Global Times said on Wednesday.
Remember that everytime you buy a cheap item of clothing or an electronic device that was made in the People’s Republic of China, think about Ai Weiwei and his rucksack exhibition.