The detention of famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has garnered widespread condemnation in the West. That he is a patriot, and a well known one at that—he helped design Beijing's 'bird's nest' stadium, which China so proudly displayed during the 2008 Olympics—could apparently only stay the hands of Chinese authorities for so long. With a history of criticizing the central government, his recent attempt to keep track on his Twitter account of Chinese dissidents arrested, detained, or otherwise disappeared seems to have been the last straw for a paranoid security apparatus intent on ensuring that the Jasmine revolutions remain foreign phenomena.
Last Monday, the US State Department’s acting deputy spokesman stated that 'the detention of artist and activist Ai Weiwei is inconsistent with the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all Chinese citizens, including China’s commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we urge the Chinese Government to release him immediately.' Taiwan, Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union have issued similar statements.
In response, Beijing took to the pages of the Global Times, a hard line newspaper published by the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. Describing him as a 'maverick' who likes 'surprising speech' and 'surprising behaviour,' the editorial explained that 'it is normal to have several people like Ai Weiwei' in a large country, 'but it is also normal to control their behaviors by law…(T)he law will not concede before "mavericks" just because of the Western media’s criticism.'
As disturbing as that is, another op-ed in the same issue of the Global Times is perhaps even more revealing of the attitudes of Beijing’s leaders towards the country’s people. Opining on the relevance to China of Bob Dylan, who is touring in that country for the first time, the author contends that 'the subject of Dylan’s songs, from drugs to racial equality to human dignity to war, are not on the radar of the average Chinese person, who is more interested in taking care of his or her family and trying to get ahead in a very competitive world.'
While the US counter-culture of the 1960s may bear little resemblance to anything in Chinese society today, the 'average Chinese citizen' would likely be surprised to learn that he cares not about human dignity. Indeed, fundamentally, Ai Weiwei and fellow dissidents are silenced precisely because of their quests to ensure that average Chinese citizens can live lives of dignity.
When Ai published the names of children that died during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake—complicating local government efforts to cover up the shoddy school construction that led to unnecessary deaths—he was striving to remind people of the inherent value of those lost lives. Discussing an art installation he later created using thousands of backpacks recovered after the quake, he lamented that 'the lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything.' Ai’s tweeting of arrested dissidents’ names in recent weeks has served a similar end.
Why does China’s government so fear Ai Weiwei and others like him? Because the idea that every human life has intrinsic value—the idea of human dignity—is a very dangerous notion in an authoritarian, pseudo-Leninist state. For citizens to be free to lead lives of dignity, they can't simply be treated as a means of production; the large populace can't be thought of simply as China’s greatest natural resource.
If the notion of human dignity is a valid one, then Beijing would not only have a responsibility to serve and protect its population as a whole, but also a responsibility to provide each of China’s 1.3 billion individuals with the opportunity to live a dignified life. This is a responsibility that the Chinese Communist Party has rejected consistently for the past 62 years, a responsibility it has spurned, of course, because it would mean the end of its reign.
And so Ai Weiwei will join Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, in a Chinese prison. Yet another hero will be quieted, another beacon dimmed. The US president will continue to volunteer his own silence, and the Chinese crackdown will continue on undeterred.
Bob Dylan once sang, 'So many roads, so much at stake. So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake. Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take to find dignity.' China’s brave dissidents, themselves seemingly undeterred by Beijing’s onslaught, must be wondering that as well.
Michael Mazza is a Senior Research Associate of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute