Rectified Criminal or Courageous Speech? Ai Weiwei in China and Germany


About two weeks after the disappearance of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the Huanqiu Shibao released a series of photographs of past criminals who had, through arduous years of “thought reform,” found a path toward the redemption in the eyes of the Chinese people.  Sitting in front of my computer screen, dumbfounded, I wondered if indeed this was still the CCP model for legal proceedings: seven years of detention until the witnesses could be adequately coached/brainwashed to say what they needed to say in order to be released at a propitious time for China’s diplomacy.

To liken Ai Weiwei to the criminals of Japan’s “Unit 731,” the bacteriological weapons researchers who took Chinese living subjects in Manchuria from 1936-1945, might on its surface appear to be either radical or just plain stupid.  However, it does reveal a certain continuity with PRC modes of justice: the presumption of guilt against the entire Chinese people, the civilizing agency of the CCP (a true “correctional policy”), and the need to deliberately orchestrate justice in order to bend skeptical turns in international public opinion, on China’s timetable, of course.

By contrast, in Germany, the opposite has been and continues to be true: the CCP is likened to the East German secret police (the Stasi), while Ai is assumed to be a principled protector of justice and human rights. There is, in other words, a strand not so much of anti-communism as of Ibsen at the heart of the German view of Ai Weiwei: He appears to stand alone, and thus stands strongest.  And, in the mold of Dietrich Bonhoffer, who resisted a different kind of totalitarianism, Ai is nothing if not prolix. While critics of Ai Weiwei’s profligacy and sometimes crass commercialism – including my Tacoma colleague Paul Manfredi, whose work on Ai is never less than thoroughly illuminating – see Ai as a flawed figure, the German ethos is such where his flaws can be subsumed and completely outplayed by his anti-statist tendencies. The principle is the thing that matters, after all.

Occasionally little rifts arrive in the narrative – such as when Ai Weiwei’s real estate agent in Berlin is revealed to have had deep ties with the Stasi – but those, I’m afraid, are the subject for another day.

1 Comment

  1. This is probably not an uncommon condition, Adam. Think of Solzhentsyn after his return to Russia. Monarchism and mystical 19th century pastoralism.

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