The “Paradoxical Mix of Anxiety and Disdain” that Imprisoned Ai Weiwei

For Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf writes about the Chinese government’s perceived threats from “old men, artists, religious sects, and even words” that have led to the ongoing crackdown:

…However egregious America’s over-reaction to the terrorist threat was and however grotesquely it led to the perversion of our values and the undermining of our international standing, it seems positively rational and even ennobling compared to the degree to which China cowers in the presence of old men, artists, religious sects, and even words. In this, China joins the ranks of other seemingly “great” powers from Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia that signaled their fundamental weakness even as they bulked up their armies and posed and postured on the world stage. Great states and great men do not fear the little guy so much that they demonize him, outlaw the expression of his views, or throw him in prison.

Yet that is just what is happening again in China as the whiff of jasmine from the Middle East wafts through its society. The Chinese were so afraid of words like “demonstration” and “protest” and even “jasmine” that they monitored and censored them on the web. They turned out police at the first signs of unrest. And they have rounded up dissidents.

Among those arrested now is avant-garde artist . Apparently the government of the world’s most populous country, the world’s second biggest economy, the country that spends more on defense than all others but one, is afraid of a man who perhaps best known for an installation at the Tate Gallery in London consisting of a million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds. He is a prolific artist and communicator and has become a thorn in the side of the Chinese regime even after he was one of the designers behind the famous “bird’s nest” stadium that became a symbol of the country during the Beijing Olympics. But he is also just one man, just an artist. Just as jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiabao is just one man.

Yet Reuters argues that it is in fact, a “paradoxical mix of anxiety and disdain” that is driving the Chinese government:

Plenty of experienced observers are dismayed by the extent of the crackdown, even given Party worries that anti-authoritarian unrest in the Middle East could infect China.

Mass turmoil seems a distant threat. China’s security forces are swimming in cash and bristle with advanced technology to nip unrest in the bud. Beijing has economic headaches, but they reflect a problem that most governments yearn for — too rapid growth.

But even after the Middle Eastern upheavals have died down, China’s tight grip is unlikely to loosen much as the Party readies a leadership handover from 2012 that is likely to see President Hu Jintao stand aside for Xi Jinping, now vice president.

Speeches and documents on Chinese government websites betray official anxiety that Western-backed threats to stability are becoming increasingly entrenched. That will make for economic, social and political policies that prize control above all.

The Diplomat interviews Kelley Currie, Senior Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute in Virginia, for her take on what is behind the ongoing crackdown on dissent:

You mention this is part of broader crackdown. Is it connected to worries about the kind of unrest seen in the Arab world spreading to China, or does this crackdown predate that?

Certainly there has been a surge in detentions over the past two months, since the call went out for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China. There has been a massive uptick in the number of detentions of lawyers, bloggers, and dissidents and particularly with some prominent cases such as Ai Weiwei.

But I think going back further, although it has been more intense in the past two months, I think it has been part of a broader crackdown that started in the period before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which was then followed by a post-Olympics tightening – which included the detention of Liu Xiaobo. When someone speaks out calling for political reform that they feel threatens one-party rule, such as with Charter 08, the authorities tend to freak out and clamp down. So in late 2008, when Charter 08 was published, there was a surge in detentions. And since Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, there’s been another surge in detentions.

So in some sense, these things are event driven in terms of the detention of certain groups of people. But they are also part of a continuum, with the Communist Party unable to manage dissent in a way that isn’t coercive. It’s part of a continuum of the Party’s insecurity on a certain level about its domestic legitimacy. There’s an absolute obsession with stability within the Party, and it sees the detention of people like Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei as critical to maintaining its vision of stability.

In his second essay for China Beat about Ai Weiwei,
Lionel M. Jensen, Associate Professor of History and East Asian Languages at the University of Notre Dame, writes about Ai’s last interview before his disappearance:

In a newspaper interview (his last) conducted on March 29 and published this week in Munich’s Süeddeutsche Zeitung, Ai Weiwei reflected on his work in the wake of the disappearance of many of his friends and acquaintances, whose “offenses” were those of questioning, speaking or writing.

When asked his own wellbeing, he expressed concern about the latest campaign against free expression. He spoke with anguish about recurring nightmares of incarceration and torture by police in which tourists blankly walked around the spectacle as though it was an exhibit. “They saw everything but didn’t care…they simply acted as though this was quite normal…we live in a world of madness.”

See also:

– “Artists, Activists Still Talking After Ai Detained” from the Wall Street Journal
– “Art of Economic Crime Inflames China’s Wounds” by William Pesek in Bloomberg


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