New Emissary

Bringing Down Ai Weiwei?

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New Emissary

Bringing Down Ai Weiwei?

The artist’s $1.2 million Shanghai studio’s been torn down. What larger ‘trend’ might this gov’t move indicate?

Last November, contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, known for being outspoken on political and social issues, was in the news (again) for being placed under two-day house arrest to prevent him from attending a politically-themed party at his Shanghai artist’s studio. At the time, in what’s now becoming his trademark style, the 53-year-old artist condemned his country’s leadership for the move, telling the international press that Chinese society, rather than being efficient, is ‘inhuman in many ways politically.’

I also mentioned then that there was increasing worry, and some signs, that more dissidents and academics were being targeted by authorities in China, such as in the case of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo.

There was already also then speculation that Ai’s $1.2m studio in Shanghai could soon be torn down by the government after a demolition notice was issued on October 19, 2010, that stated that Ai’s studio had ‘failed to follow proper application procedures.’

Ai had pointed out the hypocrisy in the government’s decision, claiming it was them who in 2008 had requested he build the studio in the first place, to add more cultural depth to the area, and he suggested that the order was a form of punishment for his more recent political activism.

Well, last week the razing finally did occur with crews arriving to bring the structure down in the early hours of January 11. While there was thorough coverage on the demolition by major international media outlets, in terms of more in-depth analysis on the event, it was limited to a transcript-turned-article from NPR, that asked the question: ‘Why Did Chinese Authorities Raze Artist’s Studio?’

NPR foreign correspondent Rob Gifford, who’s based in Shanghai and author of the book China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power, had this to say on the demolition itself and what it may indicate:‘It seems that things have tightened up here, and they decided that they didn't want him anymore to be the centre of this artist community.’

When asked why the Chinese authorities didn’t just arrest Ai, Gifford suggested that certain connections may protect artist, such as his father having been ‘a very famous poet in the Communist era and apparently one of Chairman Mao's favourite poets.’  

He also suggested it might have to do with a certain ‘savvy’ on Ai’s part. ‘He blogs a lot. He tweets a lot. He sails very close to the wind, but he knows when not to go too far.’ However, considering the current climate, Gifford also warned that Ai may going forward have to ‘watch his step very carefully, indeed. Or he could end up in the same condition as Liu Xiaobo, being detained and being arrested.’

I asked The Diplomat Editor Jason Miks to share his take on the incident and what it might indicate. He told me that for him ‘it’s hard to see what this kind of move by the Shanghai authorities achieves,’ and that tearing a studio down, ‘that took nearly two years by some estimates to build just looks, to put it simply, mean spirited.’

Miks suggests therefore that it might have been a counter-productive move on the part of the local government. Like Gifford, he also pointed out that things in China appear to be changing and he added that he’s noted especially over the past year increasing discussion about the authorities cracking down on political activities and NGOs. ‘So what was acceptable a year ago may simply not be now,’ he told me.

‘Especially with a skilled communicator like Ai Weiwei, it could well be his version of events that sticks in the public mind, whatever the authorities’ version of events,’ Miks said. ‘So perhaps an own goal by Shanghai.’

Image: 'So Sorry' by Ai Weiwei, photo by .