LONDON – The grim news that Ai Weiwei, perhaps China’s most famous contemporary artist, has been arrested and jailed – his family and friends have not seen or heard from him since – makes me think anew about Ai’s 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, now being exhibited at London’s Tate Modern Gallery.
China’s people, Ai’s installation seems to imply, are like the millions of seeds spread across the Tate’s gargantuan entrance hall. No one cares whether they are humiliated or crushed under foot (as the seeds were allowed to be at the exhibition’s opening). Unfortunately, Ai has become one of the seeds, his freedom crushed by the heel of an inhuman state.
The Chinese official newspaper Global Times denounces Ai as a “maverick,” and mavericks are not tolerated in China. The only way for a Chinese individual to survive is to adopt the grey, anonymous way of the sunflower seed.
According to a short item published by the official Xinhua news agency, Ai has allegedly been involved in so-called “economic crimes,” which could mean practically anything that the Marxist/Maoist minds of the leadership care to dream up. In fact, China’s government has yet to decide whether to prosecute Ai for economic crimes or for being “maverick.” Either way, the outside world must not be allowed to have any idea as to what fate awaits Ai.
But the true reason for Ai’s arrest is obvious. When the police stormed Ai’s workshop, they demanded that Ai’s wife, Lu Qing, tell them, “What did Ai write on the Internet?”
In the Chinese government’s view, an artist who dares to speak for the “sunflower seeds” and cultivate an independent mind is a direct security threat. He must be put under control, silenced. Of course, the ruling Chinese Communist Party is prefabricating Ai’s prosecution. It is as if three decades after China’s “opening,” nothing has changed in the Party’s way of thinking and ruling.
Ai graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, but he learned and developed his artistic talents in the United States. His Shanghai workshop used to be a salon for Chinese artists, including the film directors Chen Kaige and Jiang Wen. But Ai never allowed himself to be hired as an official regime hack. Instead, he remained an outspoken, independent man, ready to speak and take action whenever art and ideals confronted repression and cruelty.
With China’s regime now gripped by fear of an Arab-style revolution, the government has chosen repression as the only means to “maintain stability.” On the day of Ai’s arrest, former Global Times journalist Wen Tao was grabbed off the street in broad daylight. Before that, the writers Ran Yunfei, Teng Biao, Ye Du, Zhu Yufu, Tang Jingling, Gu Chuan, Li Hai, Ding Mao, Chen Wei, Jiang Tianyong, and Liu Zhengqing were separately detained or sentenced to jail. Other young Beijing artists have been detained as well.
To be sure, the regime considers Ai’s arrest a preemptive measure to prevent the outbreak of public demonstrations. But Ai never participated in the many Internet appeals for such protests. And his arrest seems to be just the beginning. The next targets will likely be independent writers like Ai Xiaoming, Dai Qing, Cui Weiping, and Han Han. The regime will not stop the persecution until the only voices to be heard are its own “official” artists.
Ai’s arrest and disappearance, along with the severe prison sentence imposed on the Noble Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, are driven by the same motivation: to dam the potential for political unrest and purge independent intellectuals.
This process is nothing new. The writer Li Hong received a six-year prison sentence and died in a hospital under police supervision last year. Another writer, Li Xianbin, was sentenced to 10 years. According to the Writers in Prison Committee of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, more than 30 of the country’s writers are currently locked up.
China’s relentless economic rise is bringing with it a decadence of civilization. The feast of new wealth is accompanied by a famine of morality. So when global leaders behave like conniving hucksters to do business with this new China’s rulers, they betray the values and principles that are the basis of democracy.
Ai used to argue that the Chinese regime’s despotism is boosted by shameless liars. He always understood that true art and politics can never march hand-in-hand. They must eventually confront each other on the field of a free conscience.
The “Arab awakening” tells something else about those sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern: the seeds, once they come together, show their unity and power. That is the other lesson that Ai wanted his audiences to understand, and it is why his spirit and message cannot be crushed: there are 1.3 billion seeds with him.