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China

Ai Weiwei Has The Last Word. For Now

Since his release from detention, Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei has been forbidden to make any political statements, but he can’t help himself. Communicating via social networks, and now a magazine essay, appear to be a matter of inner n

At a protest before Ai Weiwei's release (laihiu)
At a protest before Ai Weiwei's release (laihiu)
Kia Vahland

Since he was released on June 22 from the six-square-meter cell where he had been held for 81 days, Chinese authorities have been keeping artist and activist Ai Weiwei under surveillance. For one year, he was ordered not to talk to foreign journalists about his detention, make any political statements, or leave Beijing.

So what does he do? First, he tells the Global Times, an English-language paper belonging to the People's Daily (the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party), that he will "never stop fighting injustice." Then, via Twitter, he protests against the government's mistreatment of some of his friends and other political prisoners. And this week, Newsweek published an essay by Ai WeiWei about Beijing, about how Chinese society is being split into haves and have-nots, and his feeling of complete abandonment when he was imprisoned without a trial.

What is this all about? Can't he keep a lid on himself, and follow the advice of people he meets when walking in a city park? Writes Ai in the Newsweek essay: "A few people come up to me and give me a thumbs-up or pat me on the shoulder. Why do they have to do that in such a secretive way? …They always tell me, ‘Weiwei, leave the nation, please."" At risk of being observed, the people move away quickly after these brief exchanges.

Ai Weiwei has accepted a teaching position at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK), but he can't travel to Berlin because his passport has been taken away from him. He would not in any case have given up his studio and residence in Beijing, because two things fuel his art: freedom of speech and Chinese culture. Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible to have both in China right now.

This is the conflict of two opposing approaches of the relationship of the individual to society. Recently, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying made a critical remark to Der Spiegel, a German magazine, and through that publication, to Westerners in general: "For you, human rights only exist in connection with individuals who are subversive or break the law." But, she said, the government of China was dealing with 1.3 billion citizens.

On the other side of the issue, Ai Weiwei in his art and writings represents the old Chinese idea of a society made up of many self-aware individuals. He's fighting mainly for his right to subjectivity, the right to express his own thoughts and feelings. With his sense of who he is, he simply can't not talk about his imprisonment -- an incarceration that aims at turning human beings into trained circus animals, an imprisonment so harsh that prisoners aren't even allowed to scratch their head without special permission from the guard.

To talk about the fear and the "total isolation" of his experience to his friends and now very publicly, is apparently less of a moral duty for Ai than a matter of inner necessity. After being held hostage, healing means taking up the reins of one's own existence again, having the last word against the tormentor.

Seen that way, the Newsweek essay does not constitute provocation or a power game, but an attempt at self-rescue. In what he writes about Beijing, Ai laments a cold society. He writes of "slaves' living in illegal temporary housing without electricity, the migrant workers who build all the bridges and houses, those who when wounded go to the hospital to have themselves stitched up only to have their stitches ripped out if they can't pay. These people do not exist in the perception of the ones who matter in Beijing: the ones who wear suits, make business deals, and proudly show foreigners the "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium.

Ai, a successful architect who at one time was involved in creating plans for that same stadium, identifies with the masses. The city that was once a playground for his aesthetic urban experiments now seems to him like a particularly brutal variation of Kafka‘s Castle: Beijing's "mental structure" is one of exclusion, ignorance, and institutional violence against those who don't belong. Ai writes: "I feel sorry to say I have no favorite place in Beijing. I have no intention of going anywhere in the city…Cities really are mental conditions. Beijing is a nightmare. A constant nightmare."

Ai Weiwei is an individual who wants to conquer the technocracy through empathy. When he was a prisoner, 30 different functionaries were needed to carry out 52 interrogations because he bonded with them and most found him to be such a nice person that they weren't as hard on him as they were supposed to be. Maybe it was also Ai's talent for communication and dialogue, which also fuels his art, that spared him from being chained to the metal plank bed in his cell. We're even hearing that the (still huge) penalty payment for Ai's alleged tax evasion has been lowered, because he was able to awaken feelings of compassion for his mother so that her house was not seized.

Ai's need for discussion and self-expression could still put him back in danger. However, maybe the powers that be are beginning to realize that they're not going to be able to keep 1.3 billion people from speaking freely forever.

Read the original story in German

Photo - laihiu

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