Category Archives: art

“Ai Weiwei bemoans block on his ‘Gangnam’ parody”

I’m not really sure what to make of this one. A few days ago Ai Weiwei released a video of himself and his friends jumping and dancing to the tune of Gangnam Style, with clips from the original video spliced in with footage from Ai’s studio. Honestly, it seemed pretty low-effort by Ai’s standards, and was almost disappointing given the possibilities of what Ai could do with that song and idea if he put some time in.

On the other hand, Reuters is now reporting that China went on a censorship spree to take the video down and delete all references to it from the Chinese net. I feel like that almost redeems the video- if the most bland, inoffensive statement ever made gets pulled down, and of a song and video that are all over the airwaves already in China at that, then the censors have come out looking unusually ridiculous, even for them.

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei criticized the government on Thursday for removing from Chinese websites his parody of Korean pop sensation Psy’s Gangnam Style video.

Ai, a world-renowned artist and China’s most prominent dissident, and staff of his company performed Psy’s famous horse dance in his Beijing studio and posted the video late on Wednesday to Chinese sites such as “Tudou”, the equivalent of the blocked YouTube site.

Ai, 55, called the video “Caonima”. “Caonima” means “grass mud horse” but the word, which sounds like a very crude insult, has also been taken on by Chinese Internet users, and by Ai himself, and featured in postings mocking the government’s online controls.

“We only filmed for a bit over 10 minutes but we used a whole day to edit, and eventually put it online at midnight,” Ai told Reuters.

“After we had uploaded it, a few hours later … we found that a lot of people, tens of thousands, had already watched it. Now, in China, it has already been totally removed, deleted entirely, and you can’t see it in China,” Ai said.

“Overall, we feel that every person has the right to express themselves, and this right of expression is fundamentally linked to our happiness and even our existence,” Ai said.

“When a society constantly demands that everyone should abandon this right, then the society becomes a society without creativity. It can never become a happy society.”

On the one hand, there wasn’t much creativity being exercised in Ai’s video… but on the other hand, it still got deleted, so Ai was proven right in spite of himself almost.

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“The Artist Who Can’t Leave China”

TIME has an interview with Ai Weiwei, whose Hirshhorn exhibition opened in DC last weekend:

If you were given your passport and allowed to travel, do you worry about being able to return?

There are so many cases of people being blocked from returning. I always prepare for the worst, but I also try to act according to what is possible. I always think: why should [the government] do that? It is not good for them; it is not good for anybody. I think maybe they would change. Every decision I make I always try to say the [government] has the possibility to change. Otherwise why would you still fight? So that would bring me into many, many difficult circumstance. Because I’m always willing to test and to say: what could happen? Or say: just because it happened last time does that means it will happen again? So I can’t say what will or will not happen.

There are many cases where there are things that you fought for and that your side ended up having a victory of sorts. There was the Green Dam censorship software that the government wanted to install on Chinese computers; and the research into the names of students who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Green Dam was blocked and, eventually, the government was forced to release a total of the student deaths. Looking at that do you see any potential for, if not exactly change in the system, at least movement or response by the government to the interests of the public?

I think so. Gradually, under pressure from not just me but from different points. I think the pressure is getting stronger, you can see it every day. I always jump to the other side, to think about it from the view of the government. You can see the Internet discussion. So far it is the strongest force to deliver the pressure to the government and make people’s voice be heard. It happens everywhere. Sometimes it doesn’t have an immediate effect. Like the Beijing flood this summer, to name those names [of the dead], it was quite difficult, but they had to do it. If they didn’t do it, people will start to research on their own. That will cause the government much more problems.

The Government [knows] … many issues need to be faced and answered. And they know the sooner they answer, the less cost and less damage. But who is going to do it? I think the pressure still need to come from the civil movement. After 63 years [the government] cut out all the possible interests groups or different kind of discussions. They don’t exist. The whole nation becomes very simple. The master gives the order ruthlessly. The civilians just have to obey it. There’s no space for discussion, no structure, etcetera. No way to even to evaluate the damage. There is no true communication.

You lived in U.S. for 12 years before returning in 1993. How did the U.S. change you and how did it affect your art?

It is very strange. When I was there, I desperately trying just to survive and of course I experienced and learned so much through art on the Lower East Side or demonstrations or even the Iran Contra scandal. All those things I watched. I never [thought] there was an influence… until I was in detention and the police asked me the same question. Because they had have to find out why this man relentlessly criticized the government. He’s psycho, why is he doing this? What is the fundamental change? …At the beginning, when I talked with them they said, ‘Ha ha, you must watch too many Hollywood movies.’ I said, ‘Yes, I love Hollywood movies.’ I still can be touched if I watch movies. I started to realize I have changed. The American experience quite influenced my understanding of individuality, about basic human rights, about the rights of freedom of expression and the rights and responsibility of citizens.

Then later I learned everything from the Internet. I learned to discuss, to communicate, to make a point through modern technology. So maybe there are three parts in my life – earlier background living in exile in Xinjiang in a very political circumstance, then later the United States from 24 to 36 years old. I was quite equipped with liberal thinking. Then the Internet. If there is no Internet of course I cannot really exercise my opinion or my ideas.

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“China’s art world does not exist”

Another piece from an old standby- Ai Weiwei, who writes about art in China on pfsk.com:

What are we to make of a show that calls itself Art of Change: New Directions from China? I don’t think it’s worth discussing new directions in the context of Chinese art – there were no old directions, either. Chinese art has never had any clear orientation. Yes, the artists in this exhibition, which opened at the Hayward gallery in London last week, have struggled against the limitations imposed by the Chinese state more stridently than others. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is just another attempt to introduce western audiences to so-called “contemporary Chinese art”. How can you have a show of “contemporary Chinese art” that doesn’t address a single one of the country’s most pressing contemporary issues?

I am very familiar with the work of most of the artists in the show. Their work is certainly Chinese but, overall, the show casts no critical eye. It is like a restaurant in Chinatown that sells all the standard dishes, such as kung pao chicken and sweet and sour pork. People will eat it and say it is Chinese, but it is simply a consumerist offering, providing little in the way of a genuine experience of life in China today.

Widespread state control over art and culture has left no room for freedom of expression in the country. For more than 60 years, anyone with a dissenting opinion has been suppressed. Chinese art is merely a product: it avoids any meaningful engagement. There is no larger context. Its only purpose is to charm viewers with its ambiguity.

Last year, we saw China bringing its propaganda right into New York’s Times Square. In an advertising push that the state news agency Xinhua described as a “public diplomacy campaign”, billboard-size screens played videos that featured martial-arts movie star Jackie Chan, basketball player Yao Ming, astronaut Yang Liwei, and pianists Lang Lang and Li Yundi. Meanwhile Confucius Institutes, promoting Chinese culture, are spreading all over the world, as are Chinese traveling acrobatic troupes. To me, these are an insult to human intelligence and a ridicule of the concept of culture – vehicles of propaganda that showcase skills with no substance, and crafts with no meaning.

Although Chinese art is heavily influenced by contemporary western culture, it rejects the essential human values that underpin it. The Chinese Communist party claims to deliver socialism with Chinese characteristics, but nobody understands what this means – including the people of China.

Sounds like Ai is asking for another visit from the friendly folks at the local PSB…

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“Mural draws fire from China”

Watch and marvel as the mayor of Corvallis displays more courage in defense of freedom of expression than plenty of national-level executives from around the world:

Citing “strong resentment from the local Chinese community,” the Chinese government has asked the city of Corvallis to force a Taiwanese-American businessman to remove a mural advocating independence for Taiwan and Tibet from his downtown building.

But city leaders say the mural violates no laws and its political message is protected under the U.S. Constitution.

In vivid colors, the painting depicts riot police beating Tibetan demonstrators, Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule and images of Taiwan as a bulwark of freedom.

In a letter dated Aug. 8, the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco formally complained to Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning about the mural’s content and asked for her help in having it removed.

“There is only one China in the world,” the letter reads in part, “and both Tibet and Taiwan are parts of China.”

In a response dated Aug. 20, Manning expressed regret that the mural had caused concern but noted that local government has no authority to regulate art.

“As you are aware,” Manning’s letter reads, ‘the First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution guarantees freedom of speech in this country, and this includes freedom of artistic expression.”

Two Chinese officials, Vice Consul Zhang Hao and Deputy Consul General Song Ruan, flew to Oregon this week to make their case in person. The two men met Tuesday in Corvallis with Manning and City Manager Jim Patterson.

“They expressed their concern and the concern of the Chinese government about the mural on Mr. Lin’s building,” Patterson said. “They viewed the message as political propaganda.”

Patterson said he and Manning agreed to convey those concerns to Lin but made it clear to the consular officials that the city could not and would not order the painting’s removal.

“We also had a conversation with them about the U.S. Constitution,” Patterson added.

President Obama avoided the Dalai Lama the first time he visited Washington during the Obama administration, and gave him a low-key meet the second time. Mayor Manning politely listened to Chinese complaints, then explained the US Constitution and sent the Chinese consuls packing. Wow.

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“Ai Weiwei: to live your life in fear is worse than losing your freedom”

Ai Weiwei has written in to The Guardian, with a short letter to the editor here. By the way, fans of Teacher Ai should try to catch Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a fantastic documentary on the man behind the art, political statements, and general cyclone of activity. He writes:

The 81 days of detention were a nightmare. I am not unique: this has happened to many people, and is still happening. It’s an experience no one should share. They were extreme conditions, created by a system that thinks it is above the law, and has become a kind of monstrous machine. Everybody who has been through it loses their original hope or has it changed somehow.

There are so many moments when you feel desperate and hopeless and you feel that’s the end of it. But still, the next morning, you wake up, you hear the birds singing and the wind blows. You have to ask yourself: can you afford to give up the fight for freedom of expression or human dignity? As an artist, this is an essential value that can never be given up.

They destroyed my studio, they put me in secret detention and they fabricated a crime that put a 15m yuan tax bill on me. We are now suing the Beijing tax authorities for abuse of powers and ignoring procedures. We are using this opportunity to make them realise what’s wrong and inform the public, even though we know the results won’t be positive. They refused to give us our papers back or let our manager and accountant be witnesses at the trial on Wednesday, or let me attend court. They even made my friend Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer, disappear before the hearing.

Friends of mine say: “Weiwei, my father has been questioned, my mother has been questioned, my sister has been questioned because of you.” I don’t know these people. Why does the system make them suffer? Because it can’t allow anybody to exercise their humanity and communicate or show support. But when your children are growing up and will never have a chance to have their voices heard, do you want to turn your face away and say OK, that’s not my problem?

Reflect on Bo Xilai’s case, Chen Guangcheng’s and mine. We are three very different examples: you can be a high party member or a humble fighter for rights or a recognised artist. The situations are completely different but we all have one thing in common: none of us have been dealt with through fair play, open trials and open discussion. China has not established the rule of law and if there is a power above the law there is no social justice. Everybody can be subjected to harm.

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“Ai Weiwei ordered to turn cameras off”

If nothing else, Ai is good at trolling the Chinese government anytime, anywhere, no matter how angry they are at him:

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei says he has been ordered to shut down four live webcams at his home, which he set up as a nod to the 24-hour police surveillance he has lived under for the last year.

The artist told the BBC that he installed cameras at his desk, outside his home and above his bed to encourage transparency.

He said he was ordered turn off the camera feeds but he told Radio 4′s World at One that he “won’t be shut down”.

Mr Ai was detained in April 2011 during a crackdown on political activists and is now banned from leaving Beijing.

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“Rising Protests in China”

The Atlantic has a great photo essay showing just a cross-section of the mass incidents China has witnessed over the last year. Next time someone says Beijing has a firm handle on the situation, link them to this, and then remind them that these incidents were just the tip of the iceberg.

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“Ai Weiwei at home, in absentia”

Evan Osnos has been speaking with Ai Weiwei, whose fight with the government has been relatively quiet over the last few weeks:

The branches are bare outside Ai Weiwei’s house this time of year, which leaves the police cameras bulging from the lampposts like overripe coconuts. Sometimes, the temptation is overwhelming. Ai Weiwei ended up at the police station a couple of weeks ago, accused of lobbing stones and “attacking a security camera.” (When word got out, one of his fans circulated his concern online: “Was the camera badly injured? Did it need a checkup? Perhaps, a CT scan?”)

It has become Ai’s new routine. “The police come every week or I have to go to the station—for education,” he told me one recent morning, at the giant dining-room table, winter sun pouring in from the south.

“I have to stay in Beijing until June 22nd,” he said. “Every time I go out I have to pronounce to them where I have to go and who I have to meet. I basically obey their orders because it doesn’t mean anything. I also want to tell them I’m not afraid. I’m not secretive. They can follow me or whatever. But to leave China? I think that’s a political decision they have to make. Of course, I have rights and am entitled to travel. But let’s see how they will play that. I’m not eager to leave or not to leave.”

“Internally, since they don’t have a way to discuss issues or communicate, it’s really a deadlock for them, and that keeps creating pressure. They had beaten him— [Chinese writer] Yu Jie— terribly, because he is related to Christianity, and that is what they hate the most or are scared of the most. They are scared of any form of unity. They wouldn’t be scared of me if I don’t get on Twitter, because on Twitter I can form a community. But, as individuals, they don’t care about you. So they crash down on people quite terribly, and subject people to abuse. I don’t think Yu Jie could stay any longer. In that kind of situation, you just have to say, ‘This is not possible,’” Ai said.

But, I asked, is the tax bureau his real counterpart in this, or does his case have its origins somewhere else in the government?

“This is something I’m always wondering. Because now people are putting out a lot of information, saying, oh, some official’s staff is saying that if they knew it was going to happen, they wouldn’t have allowed it, that it was a mistake. But I don’t really believe it. It’s some kind of political struggle. But who is using what? You will never know. It’s a struggle between them. It’s a secret.” He has his theories—mostly, that the arrest was not an impulsive decision, but one that took preparation and approval from high up.

“The first person who came to question me said he doesn’t know me, he’s just been assigned the job, and he had to go on the Internet to find out who I am. And I could tell from his questions, he had zero knowledge about me. But then another person arrived, and he said, ‘We prepared for a year. We checked your background for a long time, and we had a very difficult decision whether to arrest you or not. But we decided we had to.’” Ai tended to believe him. “But that person? I never saw him again. I always asked to see him again, but nobody ever seemed to have an answer.”

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“Ai Weiwei Supporters Protest with Mass Nudity”

This whole Ai Weiwei thing is just getting weirder and weirder:

In a rare form of protest in China, supporters of dissident artist Ai Weiwei, under investigation on pornograhy charges, are posting nude photos of themselves.

They are using a Web site that proclaims: “Ai Weiwei Fans’ Nudity. Listen, Chinese Government: Nudity is not Pornography”.

Beijing police questioned Ai’s videographer on Thursday, for allegedly spreading pornography online by taking nude photographs of Ai and four women. One of the pictures, “One Tiger Eight Breasts”, shows Ai posing nude on a wooden chair, flanked by four naked women who are giggling and smiling. The room is bare, the Chinese-style chairs are hard and the overall impression is sparse.

“This is not pornography. If they see nudity as pornography, then China is still in the Qing Dynasty,” which was overthrown 100 years ago, Ai wrote on Twitter

Ahahaha, I don’t even know…

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“Ai Weiwei turns tables on China’s Communist regime”

The latest from the Ai Weiwei tax bill fiasco comes from AFP writer Pascale Trouillaud, who collected reactions to Ai scoring yet another victory over the government:

Zhang Yaojie, a researcher at the China Academy of Art who is close to the dissident movement, said the government was “losing face” over the issue and “must regret its decision” to fine Ai.

Authorities have apparently censored the Internet for information on the issue and a search for the term “Ai Weiwei” in China is blocked. But the Communist regime now finds itself in an awkward situation, analysts say.

“They (authorities) were hoping to reduce him to silence but on the contrary, they showed that there is support for Ai Weiwei,” said Jean-Philippe Beja, a sinologist at the Paris-based research centre CERI SciencesPo.

“Ai Weiwei… has managed to transform this fine into an expression of defiance and into support for his cause.”

Renaud de Spens, a Beijing-based Internet expert, said the outcome was a “huge kick in the teeth” for the government. “The regime tried to scare him, but it was not a good strategy,” he told AFP.

One netizen named Shuxuediyijian joked online that the government had “failed”, adding, “it didn’t anticipate that Ai would receive donations and tell the whole world about it. How embarrassing!”

Even the state-run Global Times recently admitted “some donors say they see the donation as an act of voting” in a country with no real elections.

The wave of donations also shows that “there is a part of the population that supports critical stances and is not scared,” Beja said, pointing to many donors who left their names with the money.

Ai — who has been banned from leaving Beijing since his release — denies the government’s charge that he evaded taxes for years, insisting it is a politically motivated attempt to silence his vocal rights activism.

He is known for tallying the number of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake — a hugely sensitive topic as many died in schools that were shoddily built and collapsed onto them, which many blamed on corruption.

Losing face really is the right way to put it. The massive, powerful government focusing so much strength and harassment on minor irritant/artist Ai Weiwei and yet continually coming out the loser is pretty much the definition of losing face.

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“Even Propagandists Get Sick of Propaganda Sometimes”

Occasionally one of my students will ask why Chinese movies don’t seem to have any appeal to foreigners. I think generally they already know the answer when they ask that question, which leaves their real motive for asking up to interpretation. Chinese audiences barely seem to like Chinese movies, given their preference for American films and the lackluster (at best) response to recent Chinese releases. China Realpolitik writes a bit about that over here:

The recent awarding of a prestigious (well, comparatively prestigious) film prize to a propaganda film has highlighted the public’s growing resistance to blatant propaganda. Perhaps more interestingly, the incident offered an insight into the minds of those who produce propaganda for the government – they know all too well that audiences are getting sick of these movies.

Recently, the August First Film Studio received an award for their piece “Shen Zhou 11″. The film, as you might have guessed from the title, highlighted China’s recent forays into space exploration. The August First Film Studio is known as a ‘military studio’. If that sounds unusual, it might be better to describe it as a propaganda studio that focuses on military topics. As a part of the China Film Group, they were one of the studios behind the recent flop ‘The Founding of a Republic’ which despite having a star-studded cast, proved to be an embarrassment for the government. The reviews were poor and audiences had to be cajoled into watching it.

[Studio head Ming Zhenjiang] also candidly admitted to supporting other more creative projects indirectly, because their studio faces these kinds of limitations. When talking about ‘The Founding of a Party’ and its predecessor, ‘The Founding of a Republic’ he said that he didn’t believe audiences would be willing to go and see the same kinds of recycled movies for a third time.

‘Recycled’ really is the best word. The government has restricted the range of acceptable films down to such a small selection that it’s impossible for Chinese studios to do anything other than recycle the same movies over and over again. Watching Chinese tv is absolutely painful, with costume dramas and indistinguishable soap operas so wooden and unoriginal that after watching one you really have seen them all. When I asked a class of thirty students how many had liked “The Founding of a Party,” one student enthusiastically said “yeah!” while the other 29 gave various forms of disapproval. Based on how hard the movie flopped, I wouldn’t be surprised if that mirrored the general public reaction.

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“Ai Weiwei’s Paper Planes”

Evan Osnos has a blog post up about Ai Weiwei and the latest phase of his battle with Beijing. Served with a trumped-up tax bill by a government seeking to retroactively justify disappearing him, Ai’s fans are now the ones escalating the fight:

The long-running tussle between China’s most famous artist and his state entered a curious new stage recently, when the government served him a $2.4-million bill for tax evasion, to be paid in full within fifteen days. Every day that he is late adds $31,640.

Supporters began to send donations by PayPal; they wrapped cash around fruit and delivered it to his doorstep; they folded hundred-yuan notes into paper planes and sent them sailing over the wall into his Beijing compound. On Tuesday, the reporter Melissa Chan tweeted, “Man, wife, and baby just showed up in Mercedes outside Ai Weiwei’s studio/home looking to contribute.” The list of donors is a manifesto of its own; it includes people like Zhao Lianhai, who became a food-safety activist after his baby fell ill in 2008 from infant formula that had been tainted with melamine to appear to have more protein.

By Tuesday’s end, according to his assistant’s public accounting, his supporters had donated 6,082,451 yuan—more than 958,229 dollars, putting him nearly halfway to covering his bill. (The prospect of him being charged with illegal fundraising is especially intriguing, as one commentator to the Global Times article points out: “How is asking someone to lend you money ‘illegal fundraising’? This happens every second of every day in China.”)

It should be pointed out that he hasn’t actually asked anyone to lend him money- the donations began spontaneously. He probably doesn’t even need the money, given his reach and history of having sold art pieces abroad. What’s interesting is that this affair is giving ordinary Chinese a chance to make a statement, and many seem to be doing so. The Communist Party would have been far better off if it had just ignored him all those months ago.

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“The City: Beijing”

Ai Weiwei, writing in Newsweek, gives Beijing what for over here. Remember, this is the man who designed the Birds Nest Stadium:

Beijing is two cities. One is of power and of money. People don’t care who their neighbors are; they don’t trust you. The other city is one of desperation. I see people on public buses, and I see their eyes, and I see they hold no hope. They can’t even imagine that they’ll be able to buy a house. They come from very poor villages where they’ve never seen electricity or toilet paper.

Every year millions come to Beijing to build its bridges, roads, and houses. Each year they build a Beijing equal to the size of the city in 1949. They are Beijing’s slaves. They squat in illegal structures, which Beijing destroys as it keeps expanding. Who owns houses? Those who belong to the government, the coal bosses, the heads of big enterprises. They come to Beijing to give gifts—and the restaurants and karaoke parlors and saunas are very rich as a result.

Beijing tells foreigners that they can understand the city, that we have the same sort of buildings: the Bird’s Nest, the CCTV tower. Officials who wear a suit and tie like you say we are the same and we can do business. But they deny us basic rights. You will see migrants’ schools closed. You will see hospitals where they give patients stitches—and when they find the patients don’t have any money, they pull the stitches out. It’s a city of violence.

Take a few minute and read the rest. If you thought being disappeared for months was going to mellow him out, think again.

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“Ai Weiwei hits out at treatment of friends and activists”

Ai Weiwei is going to get in trouble if he keeps this up, via The Guardian:

Ai Weiwei, the artist held for more than two months by Chinese authorities, has lashed out at the “torment” of friends entangled in his case and pressed the cases of detained activists.

“If you don’t speak for Wang Lihong, and don’t speak for Ran Yunfei, you are not just a person who will not stand out for fairness and justice; you do not have self-respect,” he tweeted today.

Wang is expected to face trial within weeks for “creating a disturbance” after demonstrating in support of bloggers accused of slander after writing about a suspicious death. Ran, a high profile blogger, was detained in March and later formally charged with “inciting subversion of state power”.

Ai’s Twitter messages are by far his strongest remarks since his release, and were written despite bail conditions placing him under tight restrictions for at least a year.

Four of Ai’s associates — his friend Wen Tao, designer Liu Zhenggang, accountant Hu Mingfen and driver and cousin Zhang Jinsong — were held for around two months, and released shortly after him.

“Today I met Liu Zhenggang. He talked about the detention for the first time … This steel-willed man had tears coming down … He had a sudden heart attack at the detention center and almost died,” Ai wrote in a tweet late on Monday night.

“For a while, we were detained at the same place. I heard another artist with beard had also come in, but didn’t expect that to be him.”

He added: “Because of the connection with me, they were illegally detained. Liu Zhenggang, Hu Mingfen, Wen Tao and Zhang Jinsong innocently suffered immense mental devastation and physical torment.”

Ai said he was not able to give interviews. But he confirmed to the Guardian that he had written the tweets, adding: “It was the first time after my release that I had met my colleague. I was so shocked when I saw him … He [had] a heart attack and his body was still not moving well. They treated him terribly and he almost died during his inhumane detention.”

“So many people were related to my case and were inhumanely treated for so long … How could society and the system do this kind of thing and use the name of justice?”

He said he was angry because he believed they had been ordered not to discuss their treatment with anyone.

Asked if he was worried about the repercussions of his tweets, he replied: “I am worried about everything. What am I going to do?”

He has said little about his own detention, beyond the remark that he had experienced “extreme conditions”.

“He’s still gagged. The fact he is tweeting doesn’t mean he is free to speak,” said Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“There is no basis in law that prevents Ai from talking about his detention. But law had little to do with his case in the first place.

But he warned: “When you are on bail, the risk of being rearrested is much higher than for ordinary dissidents.”

Now the authorities have to decide: is the annoyance of his twitter activity greater or lesser than the annoyance of another round of “China abducts artist” stories if they disappear him again?

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“Ethnic Music Tests Limits in China”

A common refrain that comes up from various minorities here is that they only way they’re allowed to express their identity is by singing and dancing. Even that has a limit, because Beijing only wants them to sing and dance about how happy they are to live in China. What happens when they go off script? New York Times explores:

At the forefront of state-sponsored minority representation are the “song and dance troupes” that appear regularly on television. These shows portray minorities as exotic and unthreatening — with bright clothes and wide smiles and who are fanatical about singing and dancing. Many disparate minority groups often perform on stage together to symbolize ethnic harmony. Songs are often performed in Mandarin.

The lyrics are frequently apolitical paeans to the rugged allure of China’s borderlands. In 2009, the Mongolian singer Wulan Tuoya had a major hit with the crisp, karaoke-friendly “I Want to Go to Tibet.” The song’s music video looks like a public relations campaign for Tibetan tourism, juxtaposing government-financed group dances with video clips of the Beijing-Lhasa express train.

The status quo poses a challenge to those who wish to perform traditional songs as they are, with lyrics often describing less salubrious aspects of minority life.

“About 80 percent of my songs are about hardship,” said Aojie a Ge, a Beijing-based musician from the Yi minority of southwest China. “But can I perform these songs? Of course not. I still need to survive.”

While Mr. Aojie enjoys the stability and prestige associated with his position, he is aware of the artistic limits imposed by the authorities. The government, for example, ultimately decides where he can perform, as well as the language of his songs.

“Of course, I have objections,” Mr. Aojie said. “In other countries, you can raise them. Here, you can’t.”

Last month, a few hundred foreigners and young Chinese packed a popular bar to see [ethnically Mongolian band] Hanggai play a final set in Beijing before embarking on a national tour. Projectors washed the stage with glimpses of lush grass hills, blue skies and galloping horse — a subtle reminder of what many Mongolians say is being destroyed by a coal boom orchestrated by Han mining companies.

After each song, fans from the band members’ hometowns in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region climbed on stage to present multicolored silk scarves to the band, a traditional gesture of respect. When Huricha, one of the band’s vocalists, growled, “We will bring you to the grasslands,” the audience burst into applause.

But such flourishes of ethnic pride are counterbalanced by moments of uncertainty. At a Hanggai show in Shanghai the following week, one night after Shanren played on the same stage to a sold-out crowd, the police stopped the show after the opening act, saying there had been complaints about the noise.

The band was disappointed but forbearing. “They don’t need to control everything the way they do,” Ilchi, the band’s leader, said later. “Rock concerts are very safe. It’s only music after all.”

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“Thoughts on Ai Weiwei’s Release”

With more coming out about the exact terms of Ai Weiwei’s release, it’s starting to sound less and less like something to celebrate. Custer from ChinaGeeks says the same thing, and lays out exactly why:

Seriously… ”victory”??? I know that’s a change.org thing, but Ai is out pending further investigation. He’s apparently not allowed to speak freely, and probably not allowed to travel freely. Dozens — probably hundreds — of other dissidents, including many from the wave of arrests that Ai caught the tail end of, are still in prison. And there’s no real reason to believe Change.org had anything to do with Ai’s release anyway. So yeah, maybe put that champagne away, guys.

All that aside, I think there’s another theory worth considering here that I haven’t seen espoused anywhere else. Ai’s release, coupled with restrictions that prevent him from giving interviews, talking about politics, or leaving the country, could actually be a fairly brilliant propaganda coup for China. Having Ai free but quiet takes the wind out of the sails of his domestic supporters, and will probably help disintegrate and fracture the dissident community that was essentially built around Ai’s twitter feed. Meanwhile, it also shuts up the international community, who will be too busy patting themselves on the backs (see above) to notice that (a) Ai isn’t allowed to speak or travel freely and (b) there are many, many other dissidents still in prison or being detained for political reasons.

Ai’s release might also be seen as an attempt by the government to gain some control over, or at least temporarily distract from, what seems to be a spiraling mass of stories with much more serious implications: slowing economic growth coupled with rising inflation, embarrassing reports of corruption and ham-fisted suppression of everything from independent candidates for China’s eunuch legislature to the shuttering of the newly-popular independent corruption-reporting sites, power shortages, catastrophic flooding, protests, bombings, riots… yeah, I think it’s safe to say that “Fat artist kinda gets out of prison” is a preferable front-page story from the government’s perspective.

In actuality, it’s way too early to be sure how this will play out, or whether or not the restrictions placed on Mr. Ai will be as severe as I have suggested above. In the interim, let’s not forget that even if Ai is 100% free, he was only one of many, many imprisoned dissidents. There is no real victory here, not yet.

It’s still good that he’s at least out of a black site and back home, but there’s still a lot more to be done before anyone parties too hard.

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Filed under art, China, enforced disappearance, intimidation

Ai Weiwei Released!

Ai Weiwei, internationally famous for his art, his politics, and his politically-tinged art, has been released. The most common reaction definitely seems to be surprise. The following is a round-up of reactions from different sources.

From Al Jazeera:

Ai’s release after nearly three months’ detention was not directly confirmed by him or his immediate family on Wednesday. However, Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas, reporting from Beijing, was able to reach Ai and verify the news first-hand.

“He has confirmed that he has been freed – he’s at home,” our correspondent said.

Ai “said that he couldn’t tell us anything at all except that he can’t tell us anything”.

Ai did say, however, that he had lost “a lot of weight” while in detention, our correspondent said.

Reacting to the news of the artist’s release, Catherine Barber, deputy director of the UK-based Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific programme, told Al Jazeera it “certainly looks like Ai Weiwei is under continuing restrictions” of some kind.

“All the activists released recently have been restricted, and some indeed kept in illegal house arrest after their release,” she said.

Peking Duck:

Maybe global outrage really can work, at least in high-profile cases like this. To me, this biting of the bullet makes China look better, at least a little bit, than if they’d kept Ai Weiwei hidden away under lock and key. It is less humiliating for China than appearing weak and terrified by an activist artist.

Letter from China:

The release of Ai Weiwei is an astonishment. Nobody—least of all, it’s safe to say, the leaders who signed off on his arrest two and a half months ago—predicted the scene of him waving wearily to a crush of reporters as he returned to his studio on a hot Beijing night, apologizing for being unable to comment further. He looked tired and small, but visibly unharmed. In Chinese judicial terms, his release on bail of a certain kind is “perhaps the very best outcome that could have been expected in the circumstances of this difficult case,” according to Jerry Cohen, the dean of Chinese law specialists.

Short of a sharp turn, Ai is unlikely to face further detention in this case, but he is hardly out of the woods. The first question will be what kind of life he returns to, whether he will be able to speak freely and travel abroad, and how much punishment still awaits him on charges of tax evasion.

It should be noted that the tax evasion charges are almost certainly invented, an excuse to justify an arrest that was illegal by the letter of Chinese law. Anyway, for the first time since starting this site, I have to say: good choice, Beijing! It shouldn’t have happened in the first place, and there are still many more people waiting to be released, but at least today we can count one less person sitting in a Chinese prison cell for no good reason. I’m sure we’ll have more as the story develops.

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Filed under art, Beijing does a Good Thing, China, enforced disappearance

“Defending Dissident Artist, Hong Kong Takes Role as Chinese Rebel”

Among the many who disappeared after Beijing read an internet post about organizing protests, Ai Weiwei probably has the highest profile.  An artist who has found some success abroad, the political undertones to his work clearly angered someone in Zhongnanhai- and now he’s gone.

Today the New York Times has an article about an art show in Hong Kong, which still maintains far greater freedoms than the mainland.  One of Ai’s pieces was there, and the arts community is clearly rallying around him:

The Hong Kong International Art Fair ended this week with a record 63,500 visitors and top sales driven in part by wealthy Chinese buyers.

But there were no signs that the local Hong Kong government or event organizers had buckled under pressure to remove contentious materials that might have been off-putting to Beijing.

The art fair included a single work by the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained on April 3 trying to board a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong and is being held in a secret location. “Marble Arm,” a life-sized arm and hand, its middle finger stretched upward in a vulgar gesture, served as a small symbol of dissent at the booth of Galerie Urs Meile , which has branches in Switzerland and Beijing. Laid casually on a black coffee table where buyers and sellers hashed out high-priced deals, the work, like most at the fair, sold.

The gallery also handed out Ai Weiwei flyers, buttons and T-shirts. Some young visitors pulled the shirts on and wore them around the event.

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Filed under art, China, enforced disappearance