Who's Still Afraid of Ai Weiwei?
Ai Weiwei's release yesterday in China is certainly an improvement of conditions for him and his family, versus the sheer agony of not knowing how he was doing, but the terms of his one-year bail (that he not discuss what had happened to him) strikes me as even more ominous in some ways. A lingering state control over one's most basic form of expression...would any artist agree to that expect under extreme duress?
Rather than breath a sigh of relief, yesterday's development calls for even more determination on the part of the international arts community. The Chinese government wants a legitimate seat at the table of contemporary art for their country. That seat is not yet theirs, imo.
Peter Foster of the UK's Telegraph frames the situation perfectly:
China needs to let Mr. Ai speak freely, as well.
“Without the wave of international support for Ai, and the popular expressions of dismay and disgust about the circumstances of his disappearance, it’s highly unlikely the Chinese government would have released him,” said Phelim Kine, of Human Rights Watch.
I think that is a correct assessment. This is not to say that China can be easily hectored or bullied, but those who argue that highlighting egregious cases like Ai Weiwei’s is “counter-productive” (that’s usually code for “inconvenient”) have seen that argument weakened tonight.
Some say that China, with its additional clout and importance in the world, now feels it is above responding to such pressure, but arguably the exact opposite is true. The more credible China wants to be and the bigger the say China wants in world affairs – in everything from Libya’s future to the leadership of the IMF – then the greater the pressure must be on China’s leaders to conform, in the long term, to basic international norms.
Only by keeping up the pressure on these issues, only by not kow-towing or showing fear, as we have too often in the recent past, will we encourage China to make the calculation that keeping people like Ai Weiwei in jail is probably more trouble than it’s worth.
Labels: ai weiwei