The Activist Artist of China

Ai Weiwei is famous for his criticism as for his provocative art. Now in detention, he’s becoming a symbol of a worrying crackdown. 

Austin Ramzy
Time

When people write on Chinese websites that they “love the future,” it should be a sentiment the government can get behind. After all, the authorities in Beijing have pressed their subjects to embrace the country’s bright economic prospects. But of late, “love the future” has taken on a new meaning. Online, people have begun to use the phrase, which is ai wei lai in Mandarin, as a code for the artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, whose name became too sensitive to post or search for on many Chinese websites after his detention by police on April 3.

Ai is the country’s best-known modern artist, with a current exhibition of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds at London’s Tate Modern museum. His collection of bronze animal heads — replicas of those looted from Beijing’s Summer Palace by French and British troops in 1860 — is set to go on display outside New York City’s Central Park next month. A son of Ai Qing, a beloved revolutionary poet whose words Premier Wen Jiabao can quote from memory, Ai Weiwei is a burly online oversharer with 78,000 followers on Twitter. And he has emerged as one of the most prominent critics of China’s ruling Communist Party, drawing public focus to some of China’s most tragic events.

After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, Ai began to ask how many children were killed in collapsed schools, eventually organizing volunteers who canvassed mountain towns and tallied nearly 6,000 dead children. Chastened, the government finally released its own total of student deaths. Ai also produced a documentary film about a man who killed six Shanghai police officers, apparently in revenge for abuse the man had suffered while in custody. More recently, Ai began to look into the case of Qian Yunhui, a village chief in Zhejiang province who some people in China suspect was murdered at the behest of corrupt officials. Now, after years of raising sensitive questions and tweeting his nearly every move and thought, Ai has gone uncharacteristically quiet. He has been held incommunicado at an undisclosed location as Beijing police investigate him for suspected economic crimes. His silence raises a sensitive question: How much — if any — dissent is the Chinese government willing to tolerate?

A Subtle Rebellion
Ai was born in Beijing in 1957 during the first wave of Mao’s antirightist campaign, when hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were persecuted for their suspected opposition to radical economic reforms. His family was exiled to the western region of Xinjiang, where his father was forced to clean toilets. The family returned to Beijing in 1976, and a few years later Ai moved to New York City, where he began to paint, take photographs and produce subtly rebellious works, like a violin with a shovel handle. He went on a hunger strike after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown but remained outside China until his father’s poor health drew him back in 1993. “This is your country,” his father told him as he was dying. “Don’t be polite.” (See pictures of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.)

Ai hardly needed encouragement. One of his most famous works from that period was a photo series titled “Study of Perspective,” which showed him flipping off cultural and political monuments like the White House and Tiananmen Square. Another series showed him dropping a Han dynasty urn to symbolize the widespread destruction of history in China. He oversaw the construction of maps of China made from the wood of old temples, sculptures built from bicycles and massive chandeliers that mocked the ostentation of Communist officialdom. The unifying theme was “asking questions through objects,” says Philip Tinari, a Beijing-based expert in modern Chinese art. And then Ai decided to ask more and more of the questions himself.

At first his prominence seemed to offer him a measure of protection that other activists didn’t enjoy. Ai wasn’t punished for publicly denouncing the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a propaganda display. But that illusion of safety disappeared in 2009, when he was assaulted by police officers in Chengdu while attempting to attend the trial of Tan Zuoren, an activist who helped tally the students who died in the earthquake. Ai later underwent cranial surgery in Munich to treat internal bleeding. The assault did little to thwart his willingness to vent criticisms. “Everybody has worries, but being scared will not help the situation,” he told TIME last year. “More people need to speak out and participate so social change can be possible.”

Now Ai’s unrelenting activism has run up against a broad crackdown on dissent in China. After the popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, an anonymous declaration on an overseas Chinese-language website pledged to follow them with protests in China. That would have been enough to trigger a crackdown, but there are other factors in play. The country’s top leadership is due to change next year, and officials don’t want to be seen as too lenient. Activists and lawyers are considered particularly at risk, says Eva Pils, an associate professor of law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “There is a perception that these people are threatening,” Pils says. “Over the past one or two years, the political faction within the leadership that wants to deal with [them] in a very repressive way has won out.” (See China stamp out democracy protests.)

China has seen plenty of politically tense periods in recent years, such as the 20th anniversary in 2009 of the Tiananmen massacre or the months after jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. But the current crackdown is particularly worrisome, says Renee Xia, international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group, because its targets include people who avoided calls for outright political change and were generally more tolerated in the past. “They’re not outright political activists,” Xia says. “The detained and disappeared are artists, civil-society activists and citizens who are drawing attention to social and economic issues.” Since mid-February, security services across the country have put at least 200 activists under some sort of detention or house arrest and formally arrested 26 people, while 30 others, including seven lawyers, have disappeared into police custody, according to Xia.

Ai was one of the last to be grabbed. He was stopped with an assistant while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed four days later that he is suspected of unspecified “economic crimes” (which often means tax evasion). Little else has been made public. “It’s hard for us to tell what’s happening,” says Jennifer Ng, the assistant who was with Ai when he was detained. Ng was allowed to fly to Hong Kong. Ai’s mother Gao Ying says the family has received no notice of his detention. “How could a mother not be worried?” she says. “We want to go to the authorities, but we don’t even know where he is.” (See “Human Rights Lawyers on Defense in China.”)

It’s possible that the authorities are still deciding their next steps. “They may not actually know how they’ll proceed with Ai’s case,” says Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong — based senior manager for the Dui Hua Foundation, a human-rights group. “One thing is certain: saying he’s suspected of economic crimes is intended to defuse critics who’ll want to frame this as a politically motivated prosecution.” Investigators have sought to interview all of Ai’s studio staff, and one associate, Wen Tao, also remains in custody.

Ai’s detention has put a global spotlight on the current bout of repression. The U.S., the E.U., Australia, Britain, France and Germany have all raised his case, and outgoing U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman specifically cited him in a farewell speech in Shanghai. “As a result of this, people realize that China can make people suddenly disappear,” says Alison Klayman, a journalist and filmmaker who is producing a documentary about the artist titled Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. “That is what he has talked about, and now people will get it.”

It’s an irony that Ai would appreciate: his criticisms of the Chinese state can be heard loudest now that he can’t be heard at all.

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