For China Beat, Geremie Barmé reflects on Ai Weiwei’s role as an artist and critic, and ponders the reaction from the Chinese government and from Ai’s contemporaries in the art world. He writes: “Ai Weiwei’s exit is only a short-term solution to an intractable long-term problem: whither China?”:
Some commentators have remarked that the relentless appetite of the international media for China controversy in recent years served to goad Weiwei into making ever more extreme statements, ones that would lead to the same place that outspokenness has guided so many others before him: jail. All the while his words were not easily accessible in China itself, where despite often extraordinary official toleration he was regarded as being too much of a firebrand, or rather as a noxious figure who contributed to upsetting the chummy relationship between power, commerce and global capital. It is now virtually de rigueur for writers to hedge their remarks about prickly individuals like Weiwei and their plangent fate with the balm of happier observations to do with general overall improvements in China, its relatively flourishing intellectual scene, the lot of the common man and woman, and so on and so forth. But it is too easy to take Weiwei’s splenetic rants as constituting his only message, for him to be out of kilter with the times, a distasteful (if colourful) irritant to “business as usual”, or indeed to regard international readers as his predominant audience.
Rather Weiwei has been very much a Chinese critic, addressing internal concerns but speaking far beyond the borders of the party-state. In fact, he belongs to a long line of modern Chinese thinkers and cultural figures whose moral outrage in the face of tyranny has taken the form of lambast, irony or biting satire. Lu Xun (d.1936) is the most famous in this lineage, but their number also includes the early Republican journalist Huang Yuansheng (murdered in 1915), Deng Tuo (committed suicide in 1966), Yu Luoke (executed in the early 1970s), the Taiwan-based writers Bo Yang and Li Ao, the Hong Kong humorists Hah Kung and Yau-ma-tei, the essayist Lung Ying-tai (recently banned in China), the journalist Dai Qing (censored since 1989), the novelist Chan Koon-chung (banned in China), the playwright Wu Zuguang, a man still celebrated although his sharp criticisms are deleted from the record, and the blogger Han Han, who still remains at large. Then, of course, there is the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo.
These are but a few of China’s voices of conscience; their ideas, and their fate, have not been limited to a particular Chinese polity, rather they are part of the “Chinese commonwealth.” It is a commonwealth that has finally achieved much in material terms, but one that has repeatedly failed to realise the promise of a more equitable, free and democratic society, one championed by the Xinhai Revolution that marks its centenary this year.
At the end of the article, Barmé asks:
For years Ai Weiwei’s brazen truth-telling has been a challenge to the other prominent darlings of the international film, art and literary circuit. Will they now stand in solidarity with one of their own, even though he has repeatedly caused them discomfort? Or will they, like the hundreds of other “transgressive” (that is, “naughty but not dangerous”) representatives of China’s globally vaunted new culture, remain silent and continue to enjoy the rewards available to those who acquiesce in measured cultural repression while never having to take a stand?