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Jun 23 2011

One Small Step: The Release of Ai Weiwei

by Andrew Cohen

Courtesy the artist’s studio and AW Asia. Photographed by Ted Alcorn.

China’s state-sponsored Xinhua News Agency yesterday reported the release of Ai Weiwei from his 80-day detention. Ai is free on bail “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from,” read the online English communiqué. Official double-speak aside, Ai’s release from an undisclosed detention facility in China this week signals a great victory for the immense and unprecedented international campaign waged on his behalf for nearly three months.

The media kept Ai’s plight in the spotlight. Hundreds of thousands signed petitions for his release. Fellow artists, high profile politicians and low-key diplomats led vocal and behind-the-scene drives across continents for his freedom. All the while, mass public protests, calling for justice and freedom of expression, were held in many major cities worldwide.

Strange as this may sound, Ai Weiwei’s release is also a victory for China. It’s a positive step in the right direction. And even baby steps are something to be lauded.

Until Ai Weiwei came along, no one since June 4th (the Tiananmen Square incident, 1989) had the courage to give the finger to Mao’s portrait in Tiananmen Square. Under Mao’s rule, Ai would have permanently disappeared, like that young student did under Deng’s in 1989, who defiantly stood in front of the tanks during the Tiananmen protests. 

Ai’s “confessing” to the alleged crimes of tax evasion and agreeing to pay his back taxes, as reasons for his sudden release, is nothing but a face saving ploy on China’s part. Instead of risking Ai’s deteriorating health in prison (due to his reported high blood pressure and diabetic condition), his release allows China to put a humanitarian spin on its decision to grant him bail. For all its two-faced propaganda, Ai’s release is a step forward for China—one that allows it to pay lip service to reform and to make clear its firm intolerance of popular dissent on one hand, while at the same time affording it an honorable retreat from an unpopular totalitarian position that had a potential to blow up into its very own Arab awakening.

Through his art, Ai has figuratively stood in front of many tanks. He curated a show called Fuck Off that directly confronted the state-sponsored Shanghai Biennale 2000; he built up (literally) and then boycotted the 2008 Beijing Olympics; later, he launched a citizen’s campaign to uncover and publish over 5,000 names of the children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to shoddily constructed schools. He openly criticized the Party on the internet, comparing its authoritarian nature to that of a deranged dog. All this was done in the name of art. Ai has no political platform, he doesn’t represent any organization: he is an artist who uses politics and the internet—much as other artists might use paint or clay—as mediums of expression.

It’s true that the Jasmine Revolution could not have occurred so swiftly without the power of social media. Parallels can be drawn between the communist domino theory propagated by a paranoid America during the Cold War and the prospect of an Arab Spring domino effect haunting China today. In China’s present day socialist society, the charge of “tax evasion” (a threat to collectivism) carries the same stigma as the charge of “communist subversion” (a threat to individualism) did during the McCarthy era. Either charge is a public attack on the character and patriotism of influential people, such as Ai, who hold differing views and have the courage to express them.

The tax evasion charges leveled against Ai are obviously contrived to put a stop to his politically charged internet performance art, which threatened what the government calls “social harmony.” But the charge can be viewed as an intelligent move from the perspective of China’s leaders if only because it allowed them to gauge international reaction, and, if necessary, to beat a later retreat from their hardline stance—which they did yesterday. Unlike the hellish situation of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who was charged with “political crimes,” we have to glean some hope that Ai has been charged with “economic crimes,” a western-inspired approach often used by governments to silence human rights activists and outspoken political prisoners. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for tax evasion in 1960, and acquitted with the support of then presidential candidate JFK, while business oligarch turned dissident Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky is still being jailed by Russia today under similar charges.

Continued calls by people such as sculptor Anish Kapoor, for “every artist not to show in China,” to ensure Ai remains free, though well-intentioned, are misinformed and should not be given any credence whatsoever by the art community. History has shown us the horrific results of art boycotts. Imagine if Rauschenberg, to protest the unjust imprisonment of Wei Jingsheng, did not exhibit his work in Beijing and Lhasa in 1985? Rauschenberg’s influence would have been lost on a whole generation of artists who helped bring about the social change that perhaps helped gain Wei his freedom. The answer to censorship is not more censorship, especially in the realm of art whose practitioners are the forerunners of change.

The Chinese government realized that they got it wrong when they thought Ai was angling to be the leader of the next Jasmine Revolution, or even had such power at his disposal. Let’s hope the Party now sees Ai Weiwei for what he is—an artist—an especially gifted political artist who is an honor for China and humanity—and that Paramount leader Hu Jintao (himself responsible for the massacre of Tibetans in 1989 when he was Party Regional Committee Secretary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region) is steering China in a new direction. Perhaps he wants to leave a legacy before the upcoming Politburo reshuffle, due to occur in 2012. Or perhaps he wants to pave the way for the fifth generation of leaders to do so.

If China could take a few more steps in this same direction and free the many other prisoners of conscience being held unjustly—such as the four others arrested with Ai, the milk activist Zhao Lianhai, human rights lawyers, writers, activists and others—it would soon be running so fast, no country would be able to catch up for generations to come. Like the first steps on the alien terrain of the moon, this could very well be a giant step for mankind taken by China’s leadership, a government used to trampling the broken souls of its downtrodden masses.

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