Enlightenment, Cell, Studio: Beijing, Berlin, and Ai Weiwei

Image courtesy Richard Kraus, University of Oregon

In its typically understated fashion of reasserting totalitarian facts, the Chinese government appears to have arrested the dissident provocateur Ai Weiwei in Beijing.  (Hat tip to Evan Osnos in Beijing for the full story.)

The timing of the arrest is a bit curious.  What serves as a trigger for such an arrest, after all, particularly given that this action seemed to be the work of China’s central government rather than an arbitrary action of local cops?

For me, two things:

1.) Ai Weiwei is building a studio in Berlin, and 2.) the German Foreign Minister just returned a few days ago from a visit to Beijing, where, among other things, he opened a much-celebrated “Art of the Enlightenment” exhibition at China’s newly-rennovated National Museum.

Are the Chinese Communists so paranoid that the “Enlightenment” theme — held in a museum once focused wholly on Party history, no less — prompts internal criticism and necessitates a conciliating step whereby an artist with deep ties to Germany is silenced?  It’s a speculative connection, but so is most of the reporting from Ai Weiwei these days.

Fortunately I am in Berlin this week to present a recital of Soviet and contemporary Chinese Cello Sonatas (and crank out as much book manuscript as possible, and get into some Nazi archives as regards relations with Japan in the 1930 and 40s) and can make a few inquiries into the question of Ai’s studio in the city.

Given the rising consensus on China’s increasingly confident external veneer, and Ai’s high international profile, it seems foolish not to place Ai’s arrest in the matrix of China’s foreign policy, a policy which has an explicitly cultural component.

How can China’s global cultural expansion be considered as viable of study and emulation when the homeland displays such a lack of fundamental freedoms for artists.  Doesn’t China gain much more by leaving Ai alone with his ridiculous Tweets, his children’s backpacks, his furniture salvaging all rumbling out the pedal tone of a harmonious society?

Or is harmony a synonym for silence?

Looking for truth in Party slogans is a fool’s game, but then again, the artist produces slogans, too, of a counter type.  “Im gegenteil…” A thesis which goes uninterrogated by a counterthesis emerges as weaker thereby, unforged, a tepid strength which can only be compensated for with quick bursts of arbitrary force.

Is China ever going to emerge beyond a situation whereby arbitrary exercise of state power is no longer a defining characteristic of the state?  Is it possible for a one-party system to maintain a legal system whereby one knows clearly when one is following the law and when one is breaking it?  Can’t China keep its Legalist, Qin-dynasty model of judgment and open punishments while ridding itself of the arbitrary and paranoid Stalinist elements?

Is paranoia a desirable cultural trait?  Perhaps China’s Public Security Bureau could use its vastly augmented budget (eat your heart out, “Department of Homeland Security”/Vaterland Staatssicherheitsdienst!) in order to host a series of seminars abroad, using foreign Confucius Institutes to explain to all the doubting foreigners why Ai Weiwei, in combination with a few hundred million mobile workers, several million prostitutes, gangs in Heilongjiang, a horde of hungry North Korean refugees, gangs of qi-gong prone grannies in Shandong, and whole swaths of nomadic/Islamic religious and ethnic minorities are in such dire need of a strong and paternal steel hand.  Take a lesson from your predecessors in the business, China: Justify the truncheon and it shall be celebrated.  Succeed in demonizing and defining the decadent foe and its elimination shall be tolerated.  But your Othering is miserable, lacking the strength to expel totally what you yourself have helped to absorb and recreate.

Veering back to analysis: It would be a little shocking if there weren’t someone in the Central Committee who thought it might be a good time to remind the Germans that no one in China’s government gives a damn when Germany makes waves about human rights issues.  In other words, the CCP tells Berlin, we can cooperate economically (China is Germany’s #2 trade partner, second to the U.S.) while you give us as much green technology transfer as you can, but your protestations relating to Tibet, human rights, freedom of speech, etc., are not only futile but counterproductive.

As in the case of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize ceremony, where Beijing made everyone crassly uncomfortable about attending and strong armed some smaller countries like Afghanistan into skipping the ceremony, the CCP will today use its punishment of an intellectual figure to reinforce its imperviousness to foreign critique.  For the CCP, the desired corollary of the arrest is the renewed wave of foreign opprobrium, which, after the facts of the matter are sufficiently spread via oral rumor, acknowledged and redigested by such leading organs as the Huanqiu Shibao, can then be fed into the nationalistic echo chamber of the Chinese internet, thus reminding the lobotomized-of-Locke (John, not Gary) netizens that external criticism of China’s path forward is just unfair.

So expect another predictable cycle to begin.  Perhaps that was the goal in any case.

Relevant Links and Sources

This recent Frontline documentary, “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei?”

The United States government, which announced a “return to Asia” in October 2010, has yet to comment on Ai Weiwei detention.  You can, however, get a quick overview (via both text and video) of U.S.-East Asia policy via this short testimony summary by Kurt Campbell at the State Department.

Although the author of The Party and the Arty does not seem to be a blogger, Richard Kraus‘ writing on matters relating to the specific cultural borrowing by and the specific political nature of the CCP is highly recommended.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle’s short statement on Ai Weiwei’s detention.  Is it possible that China wants to put so much egg on this man’s face that he, already embattled domestically, just gives up?  But as we already know, weak and embattled Parties will sometimes do desperate things.


My friend and colleague Paul Manfredi, who has written quite a lot about Ai Weiwei on the bookmark-worthy blog China Avant-Garde, gets the last word in a prescient December 2010 essay:

…on balance, I’d say we’re approaching the point when Ai Weiwei transitions from artist to activist.  Of course, the zero-sum, or mutually exclusive implication of that sentence is questionable—how many the venerable artist-activists in human history, and how many of them in China.  Indeed, the literati figure, well schooled in classics and fully imbued with a “art for society’s sake” 文以載道 mentality, is by definition (or at least by some definition) a social activist.  Yet, in the contemporary Chinese setting, the artist, particularly one as globally inflected as Ai, often curtails his or her ability to connect with a constituency.  I don’t mean just a Chinese constituency (which is commonly the argument against their legitimacy), but ANY constituency.  This is because by and large in the Euramerican West what Ai “means” is thorn in side of the Chinese government regardless (indeed, without “regard”) of his actual works.  In this case his status as activist amounts to a kind of barrier, obscuring his works from engagement or even the visibility they often deserve.

Of course, less than “curtailing” this can certainly be more a suspension of Ai’s contribution to the world of art per se.  He no doubt knows what he’s doing, and exchanging hats (because wearing these two simultaneously does not work) is certainly his prerogative. I just find myself wondering how much good (call it “better”) work might otherwise appear if Ai were to shift activities from politics back to making art.


  1. Adam. Here is a pretty decent piece by the NYT (surprisingly) on the Party’s view of itself, and which picks up on a couple of your points:

    The National Museum of China.

    Love the photo with its symmetry and split mirror effect.

    Now that this big picture stuff is sorted, Beijing can get down to the serious business of the 21st century, that being the creation of a world class soccer/football team.

    What can you say: Bejing has cast its collective bet on the future trajectory of govt policy. However, it will be the economy which will be the determining factor in the final instance.

  2. Adam,

    Thanks for the plug, of course. Indeed, I was trying for a subtle look at Ai’s politicization, both at his own hands and in those of Western media. Somehow, though, his arrest (sorry, “detention”) is just so clearly an unwelcome step in the wrong direction that I’m loosing a bit of my ‘critical’ edge.
    Looking more now into where he was actually going when he was detained. His plans were to set up a new studio in Germany, so the German connection is not a loose one to be sure.
    Regardless, from the present circumstance, it certainly would appear


    (to spin an old slogan badly)


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