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Ai Weiwei's 'guilt' is speaking out

If, as the brutal Chinese police claim, the artist Ai Weiwei is beginning to “confess” to alleged crimes, one can only imagine the horrors he is suffering at the hands of Beijing’s notorious secret police.

A Hong Kong newspaper under Beijing control claims that it has “firm evidence” of Ai’s tax avoidance and other “crimes”, including bigamy! You couldn’t make it up – except the Chinese authorities undoubtedly are. All Ai is "guilty" of is being opposed to the authoritarian regime.

Ai's sister Gao Ge described the bigamy accusation as "absurd", while his wife Lu Qing dismissed the allegations as an attempt to smear his reputation. Ai, 53, is the most internationally prominent of Chinese dissidents, rights lawyers, activists and grassroots agitators detained or held in secret since February. After the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, fear of contagion from Middle East uprisings triggered a crackdown.

As an artist, Ai has won great praise and a global reputation, partly through his contribution to the design of the “bird’s nest”, Beijing’s beautiful Olympic stadium. But even that could not save him from arrest, as a frequent critic of the government through his art, blogs, and Twitter messages.

As well as writing, and creating works like his sunflower seeds installation at Tate Modern, Ai investigated and exposed government corruption in construction of schools in Sichuan that collapsed during the 2008 earthquake. Others who complained were put on trial for their troubles.

Ai was detained at Beijing International Airport on April 3 while preparing to board a flight to Hong Kong. Later that day police raided his home and studio, questioned his wife and eight assistants, and confiscated computers. According to the international artists’ defence organisation PEN, Ai’s whereabouts remain unknown and there are mounting concerns for his welfare. PEN has launched an online petition calling for his release.

Corporate-led governments and the corrupt International Olympic Committee claimed that giving China the Olympics would help encourage reform, greater freedom and respect for human rights. Naturally, the exact opposite has happened. In a recent interview, Larry Siems, who directs the Freedom to Write programme at the PEN American Centre in New York, said that since the Games there has been wave after wave of arrests, including that of writer Liu Xiaobo who was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. He remarked:

In December ‘08 a group of writers and intellectuals, and artists and a number of people from all walks of life, published a petition calling for greater human rights and democratic freedoms in China that resulted in a number of arrests. That brought a new wave of repressions and a kind of a stunning response from the Chinese government on the international stage where they issued warnings to other countries for example not to attend the Nobel ceremony. And then, early this year, since the wave of protest movements and ‘Jasmine revolutions’ so called, in North Africa and the Middle East, I think a real concern over the possibility of such a movement in China has really produced this most severe crackdown that we’ve seen in years.

Siems highlighted the case of writer Liao E. Woo. Liao, was due to attend a festival this month in New York. A fortnight ago the authorities told him he would not be allowed to leave and have tried to force him to sign a document promising to stop publishing abroad.

The Chinese authorities rightly live in fear of a social explosion against a corrupt, bureaucratic Stalinist regime whose policy of “get rich quick” at any price has been applauded in the West. Corporations and governments are now pressing for China to grant open access to markets to ease the impact of the global recession so they are silent about Ai and other detainees. In any case they surmise, why are all these artists fired up about freedom, exploitation, censorship and environmental disaster? Don’t they know that the only business of the planet is business itself?

Penny Cole
15 April 2011

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