Ai Weiwei and the Gates/Cambridge Police Debate

Ai Weiwei, perhaps China’s most prominent artist and a designer of the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, was yesterday smashed in the face by a cop in Chengdu when he, the artist, insisted that the officer identify himself.   While the parallels to the case of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates are multiple (e.g., famed social critic gets treated like a common criminal when confronting a minion of state power), it seems doubtful that this instance will end with Ai Weiwei enjoying a Qingdao in Zhongnanhai with Hu Jintao.   However, one can hope that his misbegotten arrest might lead to something approaching a positive outcome via greater discussion within China of the legal system and the state police/society relations.    

Ai is now being held along with a handful of other activists in a hotel in Chengdu:

They were in Chengdu to attend this morning’s trial of Tan Zuoren, a Sichuan activist charged with subversion, apparently in connection to his inquiry into how many children died when school buildings collapsed due to the earthquake and essays he wrote about 1989’s student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

Ai, who has led a group of volunteers attempting to list the names of all the students who died, said Tan’s lawyer had asked him to give evidence about the deaths and poor building work. When the court barred him from appearing as a witness, he decided to watch the trial anyway, along with 10 volunteers.

Speaking from his hotel, he said: “I wanted to show my support for Mr Tan. I feel nowadays less and less people stand up for truth and justice [and] it is hurting the truth and dignity of the law.

“At around midnight, about 20 or 30 policemen and plainclothed officers came shouting and knocking at the door. I did not open it at first and asked how they could prove their identities. But [several] forced the door open and told me that’s how they proved it. I insisted on them showing me their police identification and during the chaos I was punched on my chin.”


The artist said he had asked police to take him away with the four volunteers who were sent to the police station but they refused. He said that once he was free to go he planned to sue the police for beating him up and return to Beijing.

Xia Lin, one of Tan’s lawyers, said the trial took place this morning and he expected a verdict in around a week.

Pu Zhiqiang, the other defence lawyer, said: “None of our witnesses were allowed in the court and the prosecution brought no witnesses. We prepared a very moving short video but were not allowed to present it. Even Mr Xia’s words in defence were interrupted many times. I think the whole trial is humiliating to the Chinese legal system.

“I feel there was no big difference whether our witnesses were allowed into the court or not – actually I am not sure whether even us coming here can make any difference. I believe Sichuan is a civilised place and I feel very disappointed with the way the whole issue has been handled.”


“Fuck Pekin,” Liberation, June 17, 2009. 

Pascale Nivelle, “The Bloggers Weave their Web Around the Censors [Les blogueurs tissent leur Toile autour de la censure],” Libération (Paris), 2 June 2009, p. 6 of special section, “Tiananmen.”

Heinrik Bork, “‘Die Herrschenden hoffen, dass jeder vergisst’: Nur wenige mutige Chinesen wagen es, an das Tiananmen-Massaker zu erinnern [‘The Rulers Hope That Everyone Forgets: Only a few audacious/ballsy Chinese venture to remember the Tiananmen Massacre]” Süddeutscher Zeiting, 5 June 2009, p. 7.

On CCP trials and legal system, see Phillip F. Williams and Yenna Wu, The Great Wall of Confinement: The Chinese Prison Camp through Contemporary Fiction and Reportage, (University of California Press).

Adam Cathcart, review of Phillip F. Williams and Yenna Wu, “The Great Wall of Confinement: The Chinese Prison Camp through Contemporary Fiction and Reportage,” China Information: A Journal on Contemporary China Studies Vol. 21, No. 1 (March 2007): 173-175.

Dr. Gates, Cambridge Massachusetts, July 21, 2009
Ai Weiwei, June 3 2009

Ai Weiwei, June 3 2009

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