Ai Weiwei and Sino-German Relations

For the last two months, a stack of German newspapers and internet print-outs about the case of Ai Weiwei seems to have accrued first in my bags in Berlin and Paris and then in my offices in Seattle and Tacoma.  What a treasure-trove of perceptions and misperceptions, opportunity and loss, of connection do these papers constitute!  In a fantasy world that demands little more than internet and newspaper commentaries from the East Asia professoriat, the bulk of these essays would be translated and summarized on this blog, leading rather naturally to a much larger and heavily-footnoted project on the role of culture and politics in the Sino-German relationship.

Teutonic methods demand Teutonic scale, and an endurance for the word and its steady stacking, rather like a city prepares for siege.

The story of Ai Weiwei deserves such stacking, as it represents Germany’s willingness to stand up for the rights of individual artists even as Germany integrates (and competes) with China most skillfully in the economic realm.

And the story extends to the city of Berlin, one of my favorite regular haunts.  So, why not add Ai Weiwei’s potential studio in that city to my list of places to go, along with the Music School where cello sonatas are rehearsed, and the Bundesarchiv where documents about things ranging from North Korean cultural ties with East Germany to Japanese reporters in Nazi Germany are hunted down?

Well, because one’s time is perpetually limited, and my best student writer on the contemporary art world has transferred to Whitman College.  (O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!)

Fortunately, other writers and commentators have picked up the ball — or the Han dynasty vase — and are running headlong forward with it in a fresh study of perspective.

Tops among them in terms of consistency and content is the new blog Free Ai Weiwei , hosted on Posterous.  This appears to be the ultimate internet resource on all Ai-related news.  The site is updated daily (“Day 52,” today’s ominous title) and provides a nice range of links and developments.  If “Der Fall Ai Weiweis” interests you in the least, I would bookmark the page and see what it has to offer.

For those who wish not to click, a healthy excerpt from the blog’s analysis should suffice:

We are living in the age where nothing has something to do with something else when it comes to doing business with China. That is the impression you get while reading Artinfo’s interview with Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The VMFA will be the first museum to exhibit its collection in the Palace Museum in Beijing. It was announced only last week.
With Ai detained, should VMFA deal with China?

Asked if this deal with China could not be seen as an endorsement of Ai Weiwei’s detention and “a propaganda coup for the Chinese”, Nyerges answers:

No, never once would that thought have crossed my mind...

On a practical level in terms of the staff, certainly Ai Weiwei’s arrest was a topic of conversation, but quite simply our partnership and relationship with the Palace Museum has nothing to do with the Ai Weiwei situation whatsoever.

Martin Roth, currently director general of Dresden’s State Art Collections and soon to be director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, was asked if it would not be anappropriate answer to Ai’s detention to withdraw the exhibition “Art of the Enlightenment” from Beijing. He answered (paraphrased): A: Ai Weiwei is making a lot of noise all the time, that’s why the media have an obsession with him. B: Without China the production of the Phaeton would have to be closed down. (The Phaeton is a luxurious automobile built by Volkswagen in a factory near Dresden.) A little more blunt and you could think he was in the furniture (or firearm) business.

The notion of Germany’s economic needs as taking primacy over its ability to take a principled stand against Ai’s detention was early on expressed in a furious editorial in Der Tagesspiegel in Berlin, the day after the following article was published in the same forum describing Germany’s total impotence in the case of Ai, indeed, the humiliation inflicted upon Germany’s foreign relations, the tangible slap in the face which Ai’s arrest consisted of in the immediate aftermath — the very afternoon, in fact — of German Foreign Minister Westerwelle’s departure from Beijing after the opening of the massive Enlightenment art exhibit there:

In early May, the immense temporary sculpture “Leviathan,” at Grand Palais Paris until 23 June 2011, was dedicated to Ai Weiwei:

Image via Daily Mail, UK

The Guardian further describes the link to “Leviathan,” and the call to close galleries worldwide for a day in protest of Ai’s arrest.

Berlin may have summoned the Chinese ambassador to issue a rebuke last month, but no contracts, or exhibitions, are being cancelled as a result.  Not that the CCP is sending thank you notes to Westerwelle, or sitting on its hands in the Sino-German dynamic of mutual criticism.

The respected blog The Peking Duck has a must-read post on a recent People’s Daily denunciation of Deutsche Welle, the German media service.

Was People’s Daily referring to this Deutsche Welle piece about how the German government felt snubbed by Chinese behavior, and the German cultural establishment prompted to debate the merits of exchanges, in the wake of Ai’s detention?

Finally, this Spiegel interview (in English) about Ai Weiwei with an architect whose frame of reference for all of this is bad-old-East Germany will certainly open a few eyes.


  1. Why does German media allow the “people’s daily” to pick up the story first? I could not find anything about that open letter until “just recently”. When somebody is accusing a Chinese journalist (later proven rather falsely) every is yelling out loudly. When it is the other way around no one seems to even listen. I really don’t get that.

    I guess it is hard to win a war on opinion when you, when you give up the struggle for good arguments. On famous people being arrested for any reason. I really would like to know a lot more about the actual legal basis. Where are the reports on the facts. How long can you be held in prison? How often should your family be able to visit you? I do not need an opinion. Everybody seems to know who is innocent and who not before the facts are revealed. Why is nobody demanding freedom for Joerg Kachelmann or Julian Assange? Because we don´t know what happend. Not a good idea.

    1. Thanks for the consideration of the issue, Neru. I think you put it quite well, especially on the imbalance of attention paid.

  2. German civil society isn’t one of the world’s most mature – something Germans wouldn’t like to acknowledge, and something foreigners may not be very aware of. A reasonable command of the English language and a one-year subscription to, say, The Economist> – and actually reading it – would make Germans much more demanding, vis-a-vis their own media. Most Germans don’t feel that anything is missing in our media landscape, because they simply don’t know what genuine journalism is.

    It’s a matter of education. Vocational schools and education are among the world’s top systems. When it comes to the art of asking question and thinking thoroughly – about things beyond technicalities -, it becomes a different question.

    I know – you love the German press, Adam. But if you were exposed to it on a daily basis, rather than taking a stack of papers as booties from your travels, it would be a different story. Trust me.

    1. Good point, JR — it’s the whole reverse dynamic. If the German press were the be-all and end-all, e.g., the only thing out there, we would have serious problems indeed. What is more interesting in some ways is to stack up German coverage of China vs. the French coverage of the same. In an early April issue of Liberation — which I enjoyed while lofting on a TGV from Lyon to Paris while a semi-drunk transient got himself arrested and then unarrested in my car, oddly enough — a very serious review of pianist Wang Yujia’s rising career included the sentence “Occidental pianists! The yellow peril is at your door!” Somehow I don’t think Berliners, or most other Germans, would put up with that.

  3. Having said that… why I don’t cherish most of the press in my country, I do think that our judicial system is pretty reliable, and professional. The problem is that Ai Weiwei, for example, will be found guilty. That’s easy to predict – that easily that you can tell why his case deserves more attention than Kachelmann’s.

    Kachelmann, however, may well be an innocent victim of slander – and if so, an acquittal alone can’t reverse the damage done, merely by having been a suspect and a pre-trial inmate.

    1. Verdict first, trial second! I thought it was fitting that the news announcing Ai’s arrest in several major German papers was paired with the announcement of a major cache of Kafka’s letters (I believe to the author’s brother). Interesting convergence.

  4. Hi there! Thank you for that post. Brilliant just brilliant.

    I am actually curating a project in London for Ai Weiwei’s capture-awareness and release. It is called The Chinese Art Project,, and I am looking to do an exhibition using art as a symbol of unique interpretation and freedom of expression. Hopefully I’ll have 25 peices of art to exhibit from 5 unique artists. You’d be so welcome to come! I guess it’s about pulling together and standing for our rights. Especially in an age of social media power. I’ve put a project video plan up here it would be great if you could find an outlet to let readers know.

    Many thanks! Keep up the good work.
    Mr Taurus.

    p.s. i’m on twitter: ChineseTwhisper
    p.p.s. I’ve added your blog to my links on the site

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