Ai Weiwei: the unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail

The artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei disappeared into detention on 3 April and no-one has heard from him since.  He was stopped from boarding a flight at Beijing airport last Sunday and escorted away by police, together with his friend Wan Tao.  Earlier that week, Ai announced that he was building a studio in Berlin, partially in response to the increasing pressure he faced in China.

Until Wednesday, the Chinese authorities refused to comment on his whereabouts, despite calls for his release from the UK, the United States and the European Union.  The artist’s detention is part of the toughest crackdown on activists and dissidents in China for a decade, with at least 24 people criminally detained, three more formally arrested for incitement to subversion and a dozen missing.

China is still fuming over the award last autumn of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo, the former professor who was at the forefront of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.  He was jailed in December 2009 for 11 years on subversion charges after co-authoring Charter 08, a manifesto that spread quickly on the Internet calling for political reform and greater rights in China.

Ominously, an editorial the other day in the state-run Global Times newspaper appeared to confirm the worst fears about Ai Weiwei:

Ai Weiwei […] has been close to the red line of Chinese law. As long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day. Ai Weiwei will be judged by history, but he will pay a price for his special choice.

Back in 1964 Bob Dylan wrote ‘Chimes of Freedom’ in which he summoned up the image of an electric storm, the thunder ‘tolling for the rebel, the rake, the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked, the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake, and for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail’.  A year or so earlier, in ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, he had asked, ‘How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Last week, with Ai Weiwei ‘misplaced inside a jail’, Dylan meekly performed a set in Beijing which had been scrutinised, censored and approved by the Chinese Culture Ministry. He failed even to mention Ai Weiwei, and kowtowed to the Chinese authorities’ insistence that he not perform ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.  Inexcusable.

Writing  in The Independent, Joan Smith noted that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented countless human rights abuses in China, and in 2008, the year of the Beijing Games, even the UK Foreign Office was compelled to list China among ‘major countries of concern’ in its annual human rights report. Yet the diplomatic and economic policy of cozying up to China continues, with, for example, David Cameron visiting Beijing on a trade mission during the furore over Liu’s Nobel Peace Prize.  Smith continues:

Guys, I have something to say to you: it’s not working. Beijing only has to throw a party and you all turn up as though Tiananmen Square never happened, so why should the regime change? Being nice to the hard-line Communists who rule China – awarding them the Games, muting public criticism, endlessly sending political and business leaders to shake hands with them – has had no measurable effect on human rights. Ordinary people in China are still denied the most basic freedoms, harassed by state security officials – Ai filmed them in his recent video – and disappearing into labour camps.

The arrests of recent weeks demonstrate not the Communist Party’s strength but its weakness. Its claims to power and popularity are so illegitimate that it dare not allow its critics to remain free…

This was Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light, strung across Exchange Flags during the Liverpool Biennial 2008, perhaps Liverpudlians favourite artwork in that year’s Biennial. An article in The Guardian last year explained how Ai’s attitude to authority was forged in his childhood experiences before and during the cultural revolution:

“I experienced humanity before I should. When I was very young,” he says. If that sounds grandiloquent, consider his history: Ai spent years of his childhood in a labour camp in the far north-west of China, on the edge of the Gobi desert. His father, Ai Qing, was an artist and one of China’s most revered modern poets, but fell foul of the late 1950s anti-rightist campaign. Life was precarious, and his parents had little time to spare for their offspring. “It was like being a little boy in the centre of a storm. Just always scared or surprised by surroundings that you cannot make sense of. And you have no comparisons because you have no memory of what another life can be,” he says.

Ai Qing, a cosmopolitan intellectual who had translated symbolist poets, spent years cleaning toilets. “Sometimes he shared stories with us, like his early [years] in Paris and the kind of paintings and artworks he liked – always things full of joy,” says Ai Weiwei. “But it had nothing to do with our surroundings – they were very tough. For years he wouldn’t take one day off. We always saw him as this very tired worker coming home with no energy; just having to lay down and sleep.”

To close, here’s Ai Weiwei in uncompromising mood in a photo posted on his blog, now shut down by the Chinese authorities.

 Footnote:  Ai Weiwei was finally released on 22 June, after 81 days in detention.

9 thoughts on “Ai Weiwei: the unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail

  1. Any person incarcerated for his art or his actions or whatever needs to be properly, humanely and legally treated. Ai Weiwei has received a lot of publicity and as a result the Chinese authorities have over reacted as they often do. If only they realised that martyrdom increases the martyrs fame and serves a number of dubious interests into the bargain. The western media have taken up his case and no doubt he will be released soon. There is so often a coming together of the liberal and right wing media when it comes to championing chosen martyrs. Such championing is often partial, persecuted Trade Unionists in Socialist states,but not in London or Madison USA; rioters in pariah states such as Iran but not in Brixton or Picadilly, sit ins in Cairo but not in Top shop and Vodaphone, UK.
    Now Bob Dylan gets it for not protesting during his concert. Hundreds of artists including WeiWei have no qualms about performing in two of the main national perpetrators of death and destruction in the past 50 years, few people blame them.Vietnam, Afghanistan, Latin america, Iraq, not to mention the knock on genocides in Cambodia, the US supported “civil” wars in Southern Africa, Congo,the US/EU support for Israel, the erosion of Pakistan as a state, I could go on. And we are expected to get upset over a man who made millions of porcelain sunflower seeds, or got others to make them for him?

  2. Well I for one excuse Bob for not making a trite and ineffectual ‘protest’ against the incarceration of WeiWei which may well have had unfortunate repercussions on the tour promoters and organisers but would have done bugger all to help free the man. And he didn’t play Blowing in the Wind? So what? he hardly ever plays it anyway and there is zero evidence that the authorities demanded him not to. He did however play Hard Rain and Gonna Change My Way of Thinking (an overtly Christian song) so his setlist was hardly neutered of ‘subversive’ material.

  3. A man jailed for his art and his opinions is a man jailed unjustly. If some of his artwork is less successful has no bearing. I agree about the US – but we can do both: express abhorrence of Bradley Manning’s brutalisation, as well as Ai Weiwei’s incarceration.

  4. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that if he’d played ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ the regime would have crumbled! What does seem insupportable is that, according to reports, he submitted to his setlist being scrutinised and amended in advance. The contrast between the two artists on that score is telling. As to dealing with China – I know it’s a lost cause. There was a report on BBC News last night about how China is buying up Australia’s iron ore reserves, making the owners of the land rights billionaires and stripping the indigenous peoples of their land, homes and culture. In a globalised economy, everyone wants to have a piece of China’s glitter. I can see that is unstoppable. But to allow our mouths to be stuffed with gold so that we cannot speak truth to power demeans us all: ‘And now the heart is filled with gold/As if it was a purse’.

  5. It’s worth noting here, in fairness to Dylan, that on May 13 he (very unusually) issued a statement on – ‘To my fans and followers’ – in which he said, ‘As far as censorship goes, the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There’s no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it and we played all the songs that we intended to play.

    A review on Expecting Rain by Mark Ray who attended the Beijing concert noted that he sang ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, and that those famous lines: ‘something is happening here/But you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?’
    produced an audible response from the ‘smart, ambitious young generation of Chinese’.

    Ray continued: ‘There have been reports since the Bejing gig of Dylan being nobbled in his choice of songs by the Chinese Government. And perhaps he did agree not to
    do certain famous ‘protest’ songs. But, as Dylan makes plain in his memoir “Chronicles”, he hated being tagged a
    “message” songwriter or a “protest” singer. People who see him as only that haven’t listened to anything he’s written since 1966. … In Beijing he got a few telling points across with subtlety rather than the sledgehammer of “protest” anthems. He opened with the suggestively titled “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”, but a lot of people, including those commentators, probably don’t know that song and so missed any possible significance in its
    presence at the top of the setlist.’

    That song is one of Dylan’s holier than thou born-again ones that I find hard to swallow, but it does begin:
    Gonna change my way of thinking
    Make myself a different set of rules
    Gonna change my way of thinking
    Make myself a different set of rules
    Gonna put my good foot forward
    And stop being influenced by fools

    So much oppression
    Can’t keep track of it no more…

  6. Hi there! Thank you for that post. Brilliant just brilliant. And interesting comments.

    I am actually curating a project in London for Ai Weiwei’s capture-awareness and release. It is called The Chinese Whisper Project (Chinesewhisperproject.worpress), and I am looking to do an exhibition using art as a symbol of unique interpretation and freedom of expression. Hopefully I’ll have 25 peices of art to exhibit from 5 unique artists. You’d be so welcome to come! I guess it’s about pulling together and standing for our rights. Especially in an age of social media power. I’ve put a project video plan up on the blog and on youtube too – it would be great if you could find an outlet to let readers know.

    Many thanks! Keep up the good work.

    p.s. i’m on twitter: ChineseTwhisper
    p.p.s. I’ve added your blog to my links on the site

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