Why Ai Weiwei Matters & What Frightens the Chinese Government (Updated)

With the international spotlight on the detention of artist Ai Weiwei, some people have asked how relevant he is to current Chinese society, when so few Chinese people know about him or his work. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson told foreign reporters that Chinese people are “baffled” by the international support for Ai:

Hong said the Chinese people are baffled by the outcry from Washington and other Western governments after Ai’s arrest nine days ago. And he questioned why some people in some countries treat a crime suspect as a hero, adding that the Chinese people are unhappy about international support for the outspoken government critic.

Evan Osnos, who profiled the artist for the New Yorker last year, puts forth his argument for why Ai Weiwei matters:

As an undisguised member of the his-case-is-important camp, I thought it might be worthwhile to lay out some of the issues at stake. The “mainstream” problem: In an English editorial last week, the state-backed Global Times declared, “Ai once said China was living in a ‘crazy, black’ era. This is not the mainstream perception among Chinese society.” A version of that argument, circulated among foreigners, holds that “none of my Chinese colleagues in our office have heard of Ai Weiwei,” so treating his detention as front-page news is out of proportion to the overall improvement in Chinese standards of living. But this definition of the Chinese mainstream is thin. The collapse of schools in the Sichuan earthquake was an event that captivated Chinese national attention, but when Ai undertook a campaign to publicize the names of the children who died in those schools—or his myriad other political-art projects in recent years—the Chinese press was largely barred from writing about his work. (I discussed Ai’s activism at length in a Profile in The New Yorker last year.) It should come as no surprise that he is not a household name, even if the issues he addresses resonate broadly.

Meanwhile, another activist who was released from police detention recently spoke with reporters and said during his interrogation, security officials were most concerned about linkages between between domestic and international players, and that concern is what is driving the government’s current crackdown on dissent. From the Guardian:

Liu, a gravel-voiced, charismatic agitator for petitioners’ rights, was taken from his family on 18 February. Police bundled him into a van and locked him in a hotel room in south Beijing. For six days, police interrogators showed him pictures of dissidents, human rights lawyers and activists, seeking information about their mutual contacts, beliefs and plans, Liu told Reuters at his home in Beijing where he was recovering after his release from 45 days in detention. The police have been hunting for evidence of a web of conspiracy bringing together domestic and foreign foes that the Chinese government believes are behind Middle East-inspired calls for “jasmine revolution” protests against the party. “They took out picture after picture, mainly of democracy activists and rights defenders, and asked about each of them,” said Liu who walks on crutches after a leg injury sustained in a protest over the demolition of a former home. “They were trying to build up links among everybody, trying to get me to tell them who was supporting what.” Chinese leaders believe domestic enemies, their foreign backers and western governments are scheming to undermine and ultimately topple the Communist party. Recent speeches and articles by security officials echo this anxiety, with warnings of subversive plots backed by western “anti-China” forces.

Update:

At China Youren, Julen Madariaga takes issue with Osnos:

… [It] is fair to say that he addresses the issue effectively.

The trouble is, I don’t think he chose the right issue to address. Many of us who (mildly) oppose all this Ai Weiwei fad don’t do so on the grounds of irrelevance, but for other more important reasons. In particular, we fear that the disproportionate focus of Western media on characters like Nobel Liu XB or Ai WW is counterproductive, and it can undermine the democratic dissidence in China …

The point is, Liu and Ai do not stand for what most open-minded Chinese people want: pragmatic policy and progressive change. We choose to highlight these two characters not because they represent a Chinese ideal, but because they represent our ideal of what the average Chinese dissident should be. And I am afraid, by doing so we are pushing China even further apart from us.

April 12, 2011 11:21 AM
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