Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ai Wei Wei's Release, a Cause for Mitigated Celebration

Ai Wei Wei, a Chinese artist who used his art to criticize the Chinese government, was released under strict conditions on Tuesday after months of imprisonment. The Chinese reported that the arrest was for "tax evasion," and certainly had "nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression."(1) (2) 

Photo from Ai Wei Wei's "Fuck You" series
Considering the nature of Mr. Ai's works, such as the one above, and China's history of human rights and freedom of expression abuses which Ai was combatting, it is quite obvious to outsiders that this is a blatant lie. But, what I find particularly revealing is this video by The Guardian which interviews people in Beijing about his release. In the video citizens try to sidestep the issue without sounding too critical of the government, as one would expect, but apparently they 'didn't get the memo' that "it wasn't about freedom of expression."

"If Ai's remarks really endangered the unity of our country, then the judicial system has the right to subject him to judicial punishment. But, I hope these kinds of cases will happen less in our country."   -anonymous male
"People like Ai Wei Wei are dissatisfied with the government...Some people may think his method was inappropriate, but this is the heartfelt aspiration of the Chinese people. I hope the government can be more tolerant about these extreme remarks..." -anonymous female
No, you guys, it wasn't about his remarks being critical of the Chinese government it was about....oh wait, you're right, it was. 

Unfortunately, according to the stipulations of his release Mr. Ai "can't talk to media." (3)  It seems probable that another stipulation is that he can't criticize the government in the same way he has. This presents Mr. Ai with a dilemma. Much of his artistic career has centered around criticism of the government, a legacy of dissent inherited from his poet father. He has maintained this commitment despite bullying by the government, including a beating in 2009 which required him to undergo brain surgery.(4) As he described it in a PBS documentary, "You can't just say that the system is flawed, you have to work through the system and show it in all its detail, that's the way that you make a critique."(5) (6)

Mr. Ai has shown tremendous courage, but no one can criticize him for laying low in the following months, which may in the long run be the most effective strategy for voicing his message.  If he avoids arrest and keeps up appearances it may allow him a chance to escape to Hong Kong, or Germany, where his major So Sorry exhibit took place. The stakes are heightened by the fact that apparently "associates [are] still missing," (7) possibly held as a sort of insurance, a revolting idea that exposes just how little respect for human dignity is being displayed. 

So while Ai Wei Wei has been "released," he is not exactly "free." The responsibility falls to those of us who are free to hold up Ai's courageous example, to spread his message and his art, and to continue the fight for truth and justice in all matters. 

Articles Referenced:
(6) Also on youtube (for now)

More from the PBS video:
When the Chinese government demolished his newly built studio, he recorded it on video and published in online, declaring it one of his most powerful artworks ever.
When asked why he seemed so fearless his response was that he in fact is fearful and because of that he acts brave, because if you don't act that way then the danger does become real.
Ai Wei Wei: "To tell the truth, whether a big truth or small truth, is always justified."

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