31 May 2011

The Curious Case of Ai Weiwei 艾未未的奇案

The third anniversary of the Sichuan Earthquake had barely just passed, the Chinese government is already gearing up for the 22nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In a few months there will be the centennial celebration of the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命), the anti-government campaign led by Sun Yat-sen in 1911 that eventually brought down Imperial China. With a calendar peppered with politically sensitive days, Beijing these days is finding it increasingly challenging to run an authoritarian regime. But it gets worse: the Arab Spring that swept across the Middle East is threatening to spread through Inner Mongolia all the way to the capital city. To nip the jasmine in the bud, the central government mobilized local authorities to lock up dissidents, disperse public gatherings and intercept Internet search engines. Flower markets in major cities are forbidden from selling jasmine altogether. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times called the latest turn of events in China the “harshest clampdown since… 1989.”

When put in this context, the arrest of Ai Weiwei (艾未未) at the Beijing Airport two months ago seems to make perfect sense. The rotund, 53-year-old artist-provocateur joined a long line of social activists who succumbed to their government’s newest weapon: detention and disappearance. One moment Ai was blogging merrily away in his living room, the next moment he was taken by plain clothes police to an undisclosed location and held there for weeks without access to a lawyer or contact with the outside world. The extrajudicial punishment cuts through the legal red tape and saves authorities the trouble of getting an arrest warrant. Ai might have been Beijing’s darling once upon a time – he was handpicked for a role in the design of the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics – but when he sided with the quake victims in Sichuan and stuck his nose in places where it didn’t belong, he crossed the line from eccentric artist to trouble-making nuisance. Ai Weiwei’s reckoning was not a matter of if but when.

The rest of the story is supposed to follow a tight script. Ai is charged with “inciting subversion of state power” (煽動顛覆國家政權) or perhaps the less serious “inciting social disorder” (尋釁滋事), two of the catch-all crimes that entered the revised penal code in 1997. Any one of Ai’s provocative art installations would have been enough evidence for those vaguely-worded offenses. A sham trial is then hastily staged, before a unanimous bench of judges sentence him to five or ten years in some faraway prison. Add another nine months if Western diplomats show up outside the courtroom or if the White House turns up the human rights rhetoric. The path of a fallen dissident from arrest to imprisonment is so well trotted that even a fifth grader in Hong Kong can regurgitate it on his social studies exam. But therein lies the mystery about the case of Ai Weiwei: none of that has happened. Two months after he was taken away by authorities, the artist is yet to be formally charged with any crime. There were talks of tax evasion and other “economic crimes” and even rumors about bigamy and possession of pornography. Nevertheless, in an unprecedented show of indecision, government authorities sat on their hands for more than eight weeks, leaving the detainee’s family and the rest of world scratching their heads and wondering what really is going on.

The Western press is quick to supply an explanation based on their one-dimensional understanding of the New China. To the West, the arrest of Ai Weiwei is a clear sign that China is worried about becoming the next Egypt or Tunisia. Sending a world renowned artist to prison, argue the American think tanks, would cost Beijing too much political capital: soured trade relationships, a diplomatic tit-for-tat or simply a bad rap. It would be a price too high for a country on its rise to the world’s stage. The Nicholas Kristofs of the world might have written something along those lines. 

Trouble is: China already is on the world’s stage and grumbling from the White House and Downing Street is nothing but white noise. If Beijing was willing to take the heat for locking up Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, for co-authoring the incendiary Chapter ’08 manifesto (零八憲章), it certainly isn’t worried about a little flak for crushing a rascal like Ai Weiwei, whose social concerns have been largely parochial – the cover-ups of shoddy school construction in a couple of tiny Sichuan villages. In fact, for decades Ai has been carefully toeing the line between acceptable artistic expressions and unacceptable political advocacy. Though many of his recent artworks deal with subject matters such as corruption and social injustice, Ai has by-and-large stayed clear of real pressure points like constitutional reform and political pluralism. Contrary to popular (and mostly Western) belief, China is not afraid of Ai Weiwei.

A more plausible explanation for the authorities’ hesitation to bring charges against the artist lies in a simple interview given by his mother. Shortly after the April arrest, Gao Ying (高瑛) told reporters that she was bewildered by her son’s arrest because President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) had once made a promise to grant her family protection from political harassment. Gao’s husband and Ai’s father, Ai Qing (艾青), was one of the greatest poets and best known intellectuals in 20th Century China. Although Ai Senior was purged and exiled in the 1950s, he was eventually reinstated and honored by the Politburo. It is not surprising that President Hu would offer the prominent family certain privileges and immunity. But in much the same way the mafia underworld is beset by infighting among rival factions, the arrest of a citizen declared off-limits by the Paramount Leader is an open challenge to his authority. Indeed, President Hu has been on the hot seat for doing little to combat widespread corruption, persistent inflation and soaring property prices, all of which have weakened his grip on power in the dog-eat-dog world of Chinese politics. The power struggle is further exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding the impending transfer of power in 2012, as the Fourth Generation of Chinese leadership is widely expected to pass the baton to current Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平).

In the end, the arrest of Ai Weiwei may have little to do with the Jasmine Revolution and the resulting crackdown on free speech, but much more to do with a political tug-of-war in the lead up to a power handover. The will-they-won’t-they suspense in the indictment of Ai Weiwei has exposed the widening cracks in China’s ruling establishment. If the artist is a mere pawn in the high-stake factional struggle in Beijing, then his fate in the coming weeks would tell us which way the political wind is blowing. Until the dust settles and a victor emerges, no amount of graffiti and light projections would be enough to get China’s most famous artist released from wherever he is.

K. Ng contributed research.


  1. look forward to your article

  2. Great analysis. As pointed out, many are ignorant of the fact that there have always been power struggle within the Chinese political leadership. It is never just black and white.

  3. Wow. I like this one.

    Before I read through the article, my expectation was another one on reprimanding the recent events in China, especially you published it on the 22nd anniversary of June 4th.

    But as you say, it is never black-and-white with the communist Chinese government. I particularly like how the first paragraph resonates with the last paragraph and enjoy the flow of the article.

    Another good one, Jason!!! And my praise to your research helper too – K Ng

  4. Jason

    An insightful information with good research. Thanks for writing the article. Keep writing...

    It would be interesting to see the outcome of what will prevail in power struggle at the top Chinese political leadership in the days to come.

    Is China prepared to take some bold steps for a CHANGE ?


  5. Thanks, Phil and Martie. All we can do now is wait and see. But the suspense is killing me!!

  6. Nothing about China should surprise you anymore... And the proverb “curiosity kills the cat” should ring truer in China than almost anywhere else...

    It’s beautifully written, first of all in your writing style (really like it) and how it encapsulates the essence so succinctly. Though is it somewhat different in tone to your other pieces though I can still detect your nuance in the piece.

    The closing line of the first paragraph is foreboding already, the last thing I (and I am sure lots of other folks) want to see is another clampdown like the June 4th massacre or even crazier, like the Cultural Revolution. Will a nation and those in power ever learn?

    And dare I ask, who RIGHTFULLY has the authority to decide that Ai’s nose is stuck where it didn’t belong? And WHY didn’t it belong there? That “Ai Weiwei’s reckoning was not a matter of if but when” is so true, and insidious, of the prevalent political and social climate in China. It is predictable to the point that you see him literally as the scapegoat volunteering to test the waters for all rebellious souls lamenting inwardly about every public outcry which is being choked back.

    [To be Continued]


  7. Gosh, if what fifth graders learn nowadays is just reciting the path of fallen dissidents and other State indoctrinated materials, one could hardly blame the post-80s for what they do and what they are nowadays. But I couldn’t help thinking, what mental torment Ai is going through all the while, the fear of what is to befall him. Is it better to face a sham trial with predictable outcome quickly or to be incarcerated for not knowing how long, and while shadows are looming at the back of your mind that one is the pawn that different factions are manipulating for their own gain? I have since learnt that uncertainty and the ensuing fear could wreak havoc on one’s human conditions, how mental and physical isolation and the like could be even more dehumanizing than the damage done to a soul by physical horrors like the Vietnam War.

    If what you wrote in the final paragraph is true, for once, I dearly dearly wish you are wrong, Jason. It is pure mortification, insult even, how can a system sacrifice a HUMAN LIFE and DIGNITY in their bloodthirsty political tug-of-war, especially if his arrest is totally unfounded in the first place?! How can a nation be mushrooming at an “exponential” rate in both its economics and human rights pursuits, but in dire 180° opposite direction?


  8. Thanks, Christine, for your comments. After two personal pieces -- "My Name is Je-Je-Jason" and "It Could Happen to You," I decided to switch gear somewhat and write about Chinese politics, one of my favorite subjects. And it just so happened that the 22nd anniversary of Tiananmen Square was right around the corner, and so the topic of Ai Weiwei just seemed a logical choice.

    Ten weeks after his illegal arrest and detention, Ai Weiwei is still nowhere to be found and is yet to be formally charged with any crime. This latest episode, marked by such indecision and lack of direction, may well go down as one of the most bizarre (and potentially embarrassing) chapters in Modern China's human rights history.



  9. A splendid choice of topic, Jason, but as my opening remarks state, nothing, ABOSOLUTELY NOTHING, that happens in China should surprise you anymore. Shock, maybe, and certainly outrage, but we have seen enough in recent months to paint the palette before this present brush of hue. You still recall how even HK has been "infiltrated" by not admitting the statue in commemoration of the June 4th incident into the CUHK campus just as one illustration? I couldn't believe my eyes then. Right, this is the little girl throwing up a tantrum again, but I just want all these to stop and let the nation live and thrive in peace without fear. Can't they create some other genre of news for goodness' sake?


  10. your revelation of the possible behind-the-scene events is in fact something that make us frustrated the most about our country...when ridiculous things happened, they often have sensible political reasons. you don't need to look to Beijing, but more and more often, the happenings in HK bear this characteristics too.

  11. Very true, fschubert959. For Hong Kong, however, sometimes ridiculous things happened because our politicians are simply ridiculous. You might be giving them too much benefit-of-the-doubt by attributing them to "behind-the-scenes events"!

  12. so it seems that Wu is having the upper hand over his opponents... apparently. Back in Hong Kong, people suspect that the move by Stephen Lam to change the way a replacement is determined to fill a casual vacancy in the Legislative Council also has something to do with the upcoming 'election' for Chief Executive of HKSAR. we will see.

  13. Dear Jason,

    Before reading your article, I did not know too much about AWW. However, now I am more familiar with who he is. To be honest, I am not very surprised that this happened in China.

    In China, one should always be prepared to face the consequences of openly denouncing the government in any way.

    I am conflicted in that, on one hand I understand why the government is so tough on their citizens - simply because the majority of its population are uneducated. Thus having these public outcry and defamatory statements made about the government will potentially catch on like a wild fire and cause severe disruption, and in worst case scenario an anarchy type of movement. Thus, the government is trying to prevent that from happening - but in a severe form. Put it this way, it is like using a hammer to kill a fly in a room. Very destructive and you end up hurting everything else in the process.

    Thanks for your article, very much enjoyed it

    with love