By Geremie R. Barmé
A much shorter version of this essay was originally destined for a leading newspaper outlet. Unfortunately, so much editorial “back-filling” was required to transform it into something more accessible to even a relatively sophisticated readership, I decided that it would be best to pull it. Instead, I offer it here with considerable additional material to readers of China Beat.
Ai Weiwei with sculpture from his "Zodiac Heads" project
This essay was written on the eve of the 2 May unveiling by New York City and the arts group AW Asia of Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” at the Pulitzer Fountain, Grand Army Plaza (located at the south-east corner of Central Park). That sculptural work is the artist’s over-sized comment on the controversy surrounding the auctioning of two of the twelve bronze “Zodiac Heads” plundered in 1860 from the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanming Yuan, which is always erroneously referred to as the “Old Summer Palace”), the Qing-era garden palace to the northwest of Beijing. As Weiwei said of his reinterpretation of the originals:
My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings. I think there’s a strong humorous aspect there. The [Yves Saint-Laurent] zodiac auction [in February 2009] really complicated the issues about art, about the real, about fake, resources, looting, about the appreciation of objects—all these kinds of issues. [From an interview with the artist by Eugene Kan]
[For further background to the “Zodiac Heads” of the Garden of Perfect Brightness and the history, as well as the contemporary significance, of China’s formerly ignored “national ruin,” see China Heritage Quarterly, No.8 (December 2006).]
Ai Weiwei's "Zodiac Heads"
In the event, as an Australian writing about Ai Weiwei and the broader context of his detention at this time, it seemed timely in another regard as our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was undertaking on 25-28 April her first visit to Beijing as head of government. On her arrival the PM was peremptorily cautioned by the Chinese ambassador in Canberra to be mindful of the country’s “tremendous progress” in the area of human rights. While by necessity economics dominated the state visit, as it indeed dominates the bilateral relationship, issues related to minorities, Christian groups and human rights abuses could not easily be avoided. Not surprisingly, Gillard was reassured by the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, that the country was not “taking a backward step” in these areas, despite glaring evidence to the contrary widely reported in the international media.
It is also worth noting a 22 April 2011 opinion piece in The Global Times in which the official Chinese stance, one that is repeatedly critical of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s stewardship of the Australia-China relationship in 2008-2010, was made quite clear:
What is especially unacceptable to the Chinese people is Australia’s challenging of Chinese values. The two countries are vastly different in their national situations, especially in term [sic] of population. If China has no right to make light of the Australian model, Australian should not belittle the 1.3 billion Chinese people’s right to choose their own political path, either.
We hope Gillard can bring some changes. The Australian government should at least show basic respect to China. This is one of the fundamental rules of this civilized world.
Moreover, Canberra should be more tolerant toward a rising China. This will also make Australia happier. [See: “Redefining Australia-China Ties”]
In the particular lexicon of the party-state, “basic respect” means support or at least tacit acceptance of even the most egregious acts of Chinese officialdom.
Fortuitously, an English-language selection of Ai Weiwei’s Internet writings has recently appeared, providing the general reader, as well as easily cowed foreign government officials, a first-hand account of how a major contemporary Chinese cultural figure sees the dilemmas surrounding “basic respect” in China today. [See Lee Ambrozy, ed., Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009, Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press, 2011.] I should also note that, in mid April, a major international petition addressed to the Chinese Minister of Culture on behalf of Ai Weiwei was launched by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and, at the time of writing, had amassed 123,509 signatures, a number that continued to grow, despite attempts by unidentified hackers to disable the host site. [For the online petition, see here.] One would observe that presumably to the Beijing authorities such international support merely confirms their view that Weiwei is a nefarious agent of the West, itself hell-bent on regime change and “peaceful evolution” in China.—Geremie R. Barmé
On 11 February 2010, in response to a question from a foreign journalist the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu observed: “There are no dissidents in China.” This came only hours after a Beijing court had quashed an appeal by Liu Xiaobo, the democracy advocate who had been jailed for eleven-years on charges of “subverting the state.” The charges related to his involvement in the Charter 08 petition movement. Asked to elaborate, Ma said: “In China, you can judge yourself whether such a group exists. But I believe this term is questionable.”
Shortly after the People’s Republic was declared a “dissident-free country,” the artist and cultural blogger Ai Weiwei offered his analysis of Chinese-style doublethink via Twitter:
Foreign Affairs Ma’s statement contains a number of layers of meaning:
1. Dissidents are criminals;
2. Only criminals have dissenting views;
3. The distinction between criminals and non-criminals is whether they have dissenting views;
4. If you think China has dissidents, you are a criminal;
5. The reason [China] has no dissidents is because they are [in fact already] criminals;
6. Does anyone have a dissenting view regarding my statement?
On 3 April this year, Ai Weiwei was detained while preparing to board a flight to Hong Kong. It is claimed that he had been taken into custody on suspicion of economic crimes. Whatever that case may be, there is little doubt that the Chinese party-state had finally decided to silence its most outspoken free-range dissident.
Read the rest of this entry »