The communist regime is conducting a brutal purge and jailing human rights activists – including its most famous artist, Ai Weiwei, the creator of ‘Sunflower Seeds’. The world should not stand idly by, says Salman Rushdie.
e great turbine hall at London’s Tate Modern gallery, a former power station, is a notoriously difficult space for an artist to fill with authority. Its immensity can dwarf the imaginations of all but a select tribe of modern artists who understand the mysteries of scale, of how to say something interesting when you also have to say something really big. Louise Bourgeois’s giant spider once stood menacingly in this hall; Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas, a huge, hollow trumpet-like shape made of a stretched substance that hinted at flayed skin, triumphed over it majestically.
Last October the leading Chinese artist Ai Weiwei covered the floor with his Sunflower Seeds installation: one hundred million tiny porcelain objects, each hand-made by a master craftsman, no two identical. Sunflower Seeds is a carpet of life, multitudinous, inexplicable, and in the best Surrealist sense, strange. The seeds were intended to be walked on, but further strangeness followed. It was discovered that when trampled they gave off a fine dust that could damage the lungs. These symbolic representations of life could, it appeared, be dangerous to the living. The exhibit was cordoned off and visitors had to walk carefully around the perimeter.
Art can be dangerous. Very often artistic fame has proved dangerous to artists. Ai Weiwei’s work is not polemical – like the Sunflower Seeds, it tends towards the mysterious – but his immense public prominence (he was a co-designer of the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics, and was recently ranked at 13 in Art Review magazine’s list of the 100 most powerful figures in art) has allowed him to take up human rights cases and to draw attention to China’s often inadequate responses to disasters (the plight of the child victims of the Sichuan earthquake or those afflicted by the huge fire at Jiaozhou Road, Shanghai). He has embarrassed the authorities and been harassed by them before, but now they have gone on the offensive against him.
On April 4, Ai Weiwei was arrested by the Chinese authorities as he tried to board a plane to Hong Kong and disappeared. His studio was raided, computers and other items were removed. Since then, the regime has allowed hints of his “crimes” to be published – tax evasion, pornography. These accusations are not credible to those who know him. It seems that the regime, irritated by the outspokenness of its most celebrated art export, whose renown has protected him up to now, has decided to silence him in the most brutal fashion. On the same day, Wen Tao, a freelance journalist and one of Ai’s partners, was kidnapped by several unidentified persons on a street in Beijing, but the police have refused to say who is responsible for his disappearance.
The disappearance of Ai Weiwei is made worse by reports that he has started to “confess”. His release is a matter of extreme urgency and the governments of the free world have a clear duty in this matter.
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Meanwhile, the great writer Liao Yiwu has been denied permission to travel to the United States this month to attend the PEN World Voices festival in New York, and there are fears that he could be the regime’s next target. He has also been asked to sign a document pledging not to publish any more of his “illegal” works outside China. (All of his works, including the great book we know as The Corpse Walker, have been banned inside China for years.) Publication of a new collection, God is Red, is imminent in the US and Europe, and there are worries that he may soon disappear as well.
The writer Ye Du was picked up in February. There is still no acknowledgement of his whereabouts and no charges have been laid. He has not been allowed to contact his family or lawyers. Teng Biao, a writer and lawyer, is one of several prominent human rights lawyers who have disappeared since February. Liu Xianbin, a writer, was sentenced this month to a 10-year prison term for incitement to subversion. This is the same charge laid against the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who remains in jail, serving a 10-year term.
Other writers, artists and activists who have been arrested or disappeared in the draconian crackdown include Zhu Yufu, detained since March 5 and formally arrested on April 10; Liu Zhengqing, illegally held incommunicado at an unknown location since March 25 (his wife has also been impossible to contact since the same date); and Yang Tongyan (sentenced to 12 years) and Shi Tao (10 years).
The lives of artists are more fragile than their creations. The poet Ovid was exiled by Augustus Caesar to a little hell-hole on the Black Sea called Tomis. He spent the rest of his days begging to be allowed to return to Rome. So Ovid’s life was blighted. But the poetry of Ovid has outlasted the Roman Empire. The poet Mandelstam was murdered by Stalin’s executioners, but the poetry of Mandelstam has outlived the Soviet Union. The poet Lorca was killed by the thugs of Spain’s Generalissimo Franco, but the poetry of Lorca has outlived Franco’s tyrannical regime. We can perhaps bet on art to win over tyrants. It is the world’s artists, particularly those courageous enough to stand up against authoritarianism, for whom we need to be concerned, and for whose safety we must fight.
Not all writers or artists seek or ably perform a public role, and those who do – Harold Pinter, Susan Sontag, Günter Grass, Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez – risk obloquy and derision, even in free societies. Sontag, an outspoken commentator on the Bosnian conflict, was giggled at because she sometimes sounded as if she “owned” the subject of Sarajevo. Pinter’s tirades against US foreign policy and his “champagne socialism” were much derided. Grass’s high visibility as a public intellectual and scourge of Germany’s rulers led to a degree of schadenfreude when it came to light that, long ago, he had concealed his brief service in the Waffen SS as a conscript at the tail end of World War Two. Garcia Marquez’s friendship with Fidel Castro, and Greene’s earlier chumminess with Panama’s Omar Torrijos, made them political targets.
When artists venture into politics the risks to reputation and integrity are ever present. But outside the free world, where criticism of power is at best difficult and at worst all but impossible, such figures as Ai Weiwei and his colleagues are often the only ones with the courage to speak the truth against the lies of tyrants. We needed the samizdat truth-tellers to reveal the ugliness of the USSR. Today China’s government has become the world’s biggest threat to freedom of speech, so we need Ai Weiwei, Liao Yiwu and Liu Xiaobo.