What better symbol of the Chinese Colossus’ feet of clay than the baseless accusations against a lone artist, except possibly the inconvenient fact that the arrested artist was a co-designer of the Bird Nest Stadium, the centerpiece of the Beijing Olympics?
On 4th April, the artist Ai Weiwei was arrested by the Chinese government as he tried to board a plane out of Beijing. The arrest was unfortunate, but not altogether shocking. He may be the country’s most famous living artist, but Ai Weiwei had been the proverbial thorn in the Chinese government’s side for more than two decades.
He went on a hunger strike after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown; when he returned home from exile in New York, where he studied painting and photography, one of his first acts was to take a photo of his wife lifting her skirt and exposing her underwear on the Tiananmen Square. The bloodied square is a regular, conscientious feature in his work. When he took pictures of his hand, with middle finger extended, in front of famous national icons — from the White House to the Eiffel Tower — a middle digit was firmly raised to Mao’s portrait on the Tiananmen Gate . In case the symbolism was unclear, he stood in front of the Forbidden City, his shirt open, the word “Fuck” on his chest. He also named his Shanghai studio — which was forcibly demolished by the government earlier this year — “Fake”; it was less of a commentary on the modern art world than a Chinese homophonic take on “fuck”.
Yet these antics belied his strong political convictions; his twitter feed, while sometimes playful, focused on disappearances and detentions of dissidents. Equally inconvenient to the Chinese government were the questions on accountability he raised in the aftermath of the Sichan earthquake. Eventually, like Solzhenitsyn or Havel before him, Ai was arrested not just for his work, but also for what he came to represent: the conscience of a voiceless generation alienated by their own government.
Neither the Beijing Olympics nor the Shanghai World Expo — both considered China’s coming-of-age parties — could mask the truth that behind a faux-veneer of prosperity and development, China in 2011 was ideologically and politically no different from China in 1989 or Soviet Union before 1989 or Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Market economies, olympics and expos were introduced, with ample wishful thinking that they would alleviate some political, ethnic and religious marginalization, but the most important things last twenty years provided to the Chinese government may be tools to monitor and marginalize their population better, cheaper, and from a further, safer distance.
(Click here to sign a petition to free Ai Weiwei, which has attracted over 90,000 signatures. It would have attracted more signees if not for a hacking attack from China).