A Song For My Jailers - Ai Weiwei On His Latest Challenge To China's Regime

When the caged bird sings...
When the caged bird sings...
Kai Strittmatter

BEIJING - "So," says Ai Weiwei: "Now they get to listen to this.”

By “they” he means his jailers. "My voice may not be perfect, and may not even sound good. I admit I was a little inhibited at first. But it’s a voice and now it’s out there."

As of this week, Beijing avant-garde artist Ai Weiwei is also a singer. "The powers-that-be have always forced us to listen to their voice," he says during a conversation in his studio in Caochangdi, the capital city’s artists’ quarter. "And mostly it was anything but pleasant: it was the voice of hate."

The way Ai Weiwei’s debut as a singer was billed was: Ai Weiwei Goes Heavy Metal. The single and music video he released on Wednesday was not really Heavy Metal, and more modeled on the mix of talking and singing favored by the artist’s songwriter friend Zuoxiao Zuzhou, who also produced this debut performance.

Zuzhou says he thinks the famous artist and rock music go well together: "Ai Weiwei is direct, authentic – born to perform on stage."

Ai Weiwei says working on the song was “therapy” for him, a way of trying to exorcize his 81-day prison stint in 2011. The 55-year-old artist, who also sees himself as an activist, was thrown into solitary confinement for alleged tax evasion.

"The worst was when they told me it would be many years before I would be able to see my little boy again."

For the music video, Ai Weiwei recreated his prison cell inside his studio. Every square centimeter of that place was seared into his brain, he says. The wallpaper is identical, as are the uniforms of the two guards that never stood further away from him then 80 cm (2.6 feet) irrespective of whether he was sleeping, showering or sitting on the toilet.

The artist stated that the video is also a reminder of just how many people are still sitting in such cells. This month John Kamm of the Dui Hua Foundation in the United States announced that the number of political prisoners in China is higher now than it has ever been in the reform era. Compared to the conditions some prisoners are kept in, Ai Weiwei’s cell was relatively comfortable.

The music of Ai Weiwei’s song was written by Zuoxiao Zuzhou, while the artist wrote the lyrics himself. Translating the song’s title as “Asshole” or "Dumbass" is keeping things relatively polite, and the verses are so foul-mouthed that they had the representatives of the foreign media conferring with each other about what could be left un-bleeped. "If we follow our house rules on this I think the only thing we can actually broadcast is the "lalalalala" part," quipeed one.

The song takes on not only China’s system but all the intellectuals and artists who have adapted to it. The BBC translated the only lyrics it deemed fit to print as: "Stand on the frontline like a dumbass, in a country that puts out like a hooker ... tolerance be damned, to hell with manners, the low-life's invincible."

Ai Weiwei relates how when he was released the police told him they could arrest him again at any time and if they did "you’ll never get out then."

The Ai Weiwei video was filmed by Christopher Doyle, a cinematographer who has worked with directors like Wong Kar-wei and Jim Jarmusch. The film also touches on the fantasies of the guards. They asked him what Western women were like.

"But that question was the first sign of humanity, of life, I got from them," Ai Weiwei says.

Within a month the song should be followed by a whole album to be called "The Divine Comedy." Before the release of the record, Ai Weiwei will be exhibiting art work in the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale. He won’t be able to attend the Biennale because Chinese authorities have confiscated his passport. Still, he says, things have improved: he’s now allowed to leave his house, even if he’s constantly shadowed by state security agents when he does.

And of course the Chinese government makes sure Ai Weiwei’s work and thoughts are kept as far away from the Chinese people as possible: his blogs, tweets and videos make it through only to the tiny minority that knows how to tunnel under China’s Great Firewall. "Perhaps 0.00001% of people here will ever find out that this song exists, but it’s dedicated to them,” says the artist.

After a pause he adds: "I’m alive. I can still be angry. I’m satisfied. My voice is back."

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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