Imagine being a world famous artist. Imagine designing national monuments. Imagine thinking that you are invulnerable to repression. Imagine speaking out against human rights abuses at your country's Olympics (Olympics for which you designed stadiums). Imagine being warned to shut your fat trap. Imagine you keep talking. Imagine that a few months later they come to arrest you and lock you away for 81 days. Imagine you come back with the strict warning that if you continue to make an international media spectacle damaging to the regime which is buttering your bread, you will go away not for three months but forever.
If your imagination is rich, you will have just lived the three years of artist Ai Weiwei's life who for many years had a blessed position as Lear's fool in Beijing. His nonsense answers and ironic commentary on the regime probably even amused the higher party bosses. A useful fool.
Ai Weiwei is indeed a very amusing fellow. Roly-poly and self-deprecating, he's the original class clown. He looks like the punchline of a Chinese joke with his straggly beard and round paunch. His art work is quite stimulating but at the end of the day he is an entertainer, a natural improviser. And apparently even a professional level blackjack player. Weiwei has not lost his passion for gambling, but now the stakes are considerably higher: his wealth and his freedom.
Naked ai weiwei: The caption (草泥马挡中央, "grass mud horse covering the middle") to Ai's self-portrait sounds almost the same in Chinese as 肏你妈党中央, "Fuck your mother, the Communist party central committee".[Wikipedia]
Alison Klayman's film captures Ai Weiwei at his best.
So when they do take him away we are very, very sorry. Even now I'm sorry.
Thank heavens they bring him back. The Chinese are awfully clever. They thought about what we do in The West to people we wish to silence. We whack them economically. Everyone is guilty of some economic crimes. Willingly I pay tens of thousands of euros in taxes every month but I'm sure that a clever tax investigator could find bones in my books. Anyone in any kind of business or who has a home business, somewhere is guilty of something.
The penalties on the books are heavy. They are not often not enforced. Like in the Soviet Union, these penalties are there just in case. If you shoot off your mouth too much, economic shut down. It's what the US did to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, via Paypal, Visa, Mastercard and the banks. While pornographers spend up a storm on Visa (and even Paypal as long as they are not receiving payment), Wikileaks's accounts were shut down and hence most of their operation.
So back to China, the clever Chinese and Ai Weiwei. When they let the big old clown back out on the streets, they hit him with tax fraud and confiscate one of his studios. They also demaind $2.5 million in cash. Ai Weiwei friends helped him raise the cash. The amusing thing is that Weiwei probably did owe the money. I don't imagine a walled free standing compound in Beijing comes cheap. On top of that he regularly sells art abroad very expensively. No doubt he owes some additional taxes somewhere, just out of carelessness if not guile.
Apparently Weiwei keeps talking but he certainly seemed considerably more restrained after his detention and his fines than before. Measuring his words. Thinking before speaking.
Moral of the story: Chinese repression is awful but just a pale shadow of what we are up to in the West. True freedom does not exist inside empires. There are always interests greater than men.
Opening film at the Jeden Svet - One World Festival in Bratislava. Kudos to the director Nora Beňáková for choosing such a thought provoking opening gig. Slovensky Sporitelna Bank is general sponsor of Jeden Svet: glad someone in the financial world is interested in the free flow of information and the investigation of corruption. Jeden Svet is organised by Pontis Foundation who are in turn founded by The Foundation for a Civil Society who are curiously very active in Iran now. The world is a complicated and interwoven place.
Alicia Liu has expressed a very cogent American Chinese perspective on the Ai Weiwei's life and Alison Klayman's film.