China Misunderstood: Did We Contribute to Ai Weiwei’s Arrest?

Beijing-based writer and former Wall Street Journal bureau chief Ian Johnson writes on the New York Review of Books blog about Ai Weiwei and the response to his activism inside China:

There’s no doubt that in recent years politics have become more oppressive—foreign journalists like myself experience some of the worst treatment in decades, are regularly harassed, and in some cases beaten or capriciously detained. NGOs are having trouble organizing and many have been shut down. And the government has launched a paranoid crackdown on lawyers and activists based on a call by a few foreign activists for a “Jasmine revolution” in China amid the unrest in the Middle East. The fact that hardly anyone here has bothered showing up for the revolution hasn’t prevented the government from detaining activists—kidnapping them, really, with some swept off the street and not heard from for months.

And yet this situation reflects only part of China’s reality. It seems impossible to live here without noting that intellectual life is far richer than it was a decade ago. You can’t assess the degree of cultural freedom by asking whether a literary salon or bookstore in the capital is open: go to a third- or fourth-tier city—Hefei, the capital of Anhui province, say, or Jurong, in the coastal province of Jiangsu—and talk to people. Compared to a decade ago many of them seem almost cosmopolitan. This is partly because of the Internet, but also the commercialization of the publishing industry, which now releases a flood of books each year, including many serious works in translation. Some works are taboo but they are a narrow sliver of the market. For the first time, non-English speaking Chinese can participate in international intellectual life.

[…] Ai is an artist, not a political theorist. Sometimes artists must issue cris de coeur against the ruling elite. That’s fine and should have been Ai’s right. But by turning his response into a vulgar curse, he effectively negated his impact inside China. I covered the Falun Gong protests a decade ago and remember how many Chinese initially seemed sympathetic toward this group of mainly lower-middle class people who stood up for their right to practice their faith in the face of strong government repression. But this sympathy slowly evaporated as time went on and the Falun Gong adherents took to the streets again and again, getting beaten up, dragged to prisons, let out, then returning again to protest. Few ordinary people I knew or heard of could understand what they wanted—why pursue a militant course that was doomed to failure? Few went so far as to say that the protesters got what they deserved, but many Chinese were mystified.

So too Ai. When I’ve described him to people outside the cocoon of China’s cosmopolitan elite, they usually ask me what he wanted. If it was just to show that the government could be a bully, no one thought that was news. Such a response may imply a lack of consciousness about individual rights and civil disobedience, and so partly validates Ai’s pessimistic view of China. But it also reveals a pragmatic sensibility among many ordinary Chinese: many of them seem to see their country as more than the corrupt police state that Ai was trying to expose with such vitriol, or at least think that there are better ways of channeling the frustrations about the government that they may well share with Ai.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Ai’s family has been given no information from the government about the reasons for Ai Weiwei’s detention or where he is being held:

No doubt the artist Ai Weiwei did plenty get in the face of the Chinese authorities. But why he was seized April 3 at Beijing International Airport as he passed through immigration to board a flight to Hong Kong is anybody’s guess.

Chinese authorities have refused to say, and have failed to notify his family of his whereabouts or disclose the charges against him, despite a law requiring they do so within 24 hours.

Reports in the official press suggest they’re still trying to come up with the charges to justify his seizure, with pornography, tax evasion, plagiarism, bigamy and failure to obtain travel permits all mentioned as possibilities.

“It is a mystery. They haven’t notified us of anything. They shouldn’t be doing this. He really is just an artist trying to express his individuality through his art,” his mother, Gao Ying, said in a telephone interview.

Read more about the recent detention of Ai Weiwei via CDT. See the new book of Ai Weiwei’s writing,Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 (Writing Art), via Amazon.