Speaking out politically for the first time since his release on June 22, Ai Weiwei has explicitly criticized the treatment of fellow dissidents as well as four of his own less famous associates, who were hauled into custody at the time of the artist’s detention in early April. His remarks appear to directly violate the gag order imposed as part of a one-year “bail” arrangement that allows Ai to live in his home compound but not to travel outside Beijing or comment on public issues—especially his three-month confinement or his impending trial for tax evasion.
In Aug. 8 postings on Twitter (a service whose official blockage in China is circumvented by myriad users), Ai alleged serious mistreatment of his news reporter friend Wen Tao, accountant Hu Mingfen, studio worker Liu Zhenggang and driver Zhang Jinsong: “Innocently they suffered huge mental deterioration and physical torture.” Liu, Ai wrote, “suffered a heart attack while detained, almost died.”
Ai also urged his some 97,000 Twitter followers to protest the ongoing detention of two human rights activists: “If you don’t speak for Wang Lihong, nor for Ran Yunfei, not only you’re the sort that doesn’t speak up for fairness and justice, you have no love for yourself.” Yesterday, Ran was released into “residential surveillance” similar to Ai’s own.
The pointedness of Ai’s new remarks is in stark contrast to his first post-release tweets—which concerned garlic, dumplings and weight gain—and his evasively “correct” six-hour interview with the Global Times, an English-language subsidiary of the Communist Party-run People’s Daily. (Some commentators have called the interview an official propaganda ploy.) Ai did, however, tell the newspaper that the document he signed before his release was not a “confession,” as government sources contend, but an agreement to abide by the court’s judgment and accept his punishment if he is eventually found guilty on tax charges.
What’s more, the Aug. 9 Global Times account also contains some vintage-style AWW pronouncements: “I’ve been drawn into the vortex of politics. I never avoid politics, none of us can. We live in a politicized society. You give up your rights when you dodge them. Of course you might live an easier life if you abandon some rights. But there are so many injustices, and limited educational resources. They all diminish happiness. I will never stop fighting injustice.”
Such high-sounding generalities, something of a rhetorical tick for the artist, are bolstered elsewhere by the vivid details that Ai has recently leaked through family members and friends. Disclosures in outlets such as the Washington Post (Aug. 4) and Reuters (Aug. 10) offer a grim mosaic of Ai’s confinement.
On Apr. 3, Ai was stopped in the Beijing airport before boarding a flight for Hong Kong. According to supporters, he was then blinded with a black hood and driven away by security officers to an undisclosed location. There he was told that six months might go by before he could contact a lawyer or family member.
Ai’s primary holding site, his intimates claim, was a room just 13 feet on a side, where he constantly paced—losing 30 pounds of his considerable heft in the process. He was constantly followed at close range by two guards, who accompanied him even to the toilet and shower, and who demanded that he sleep with his hands outside the blanket. His bed was the room’s only accoutrement, and an overhead light burned constantly.
In more than 50 interrogation sessions, Ai denied any personal knowledge about the social media advocates for a Chinese “Jasmine Revolution” modeled on recent democratic upheavals in the Middle East.
He was also quizzed minutely about the contents of his tweets and blog (which was repeatedly shut down by authorities, conclusively so in May 2009).
Ai was informed he could face a 10-year sentence for subversion.
When he said that his treatment was illegal, the artist was told that former People’s Republic chairman Li Shaoqi, who died in prison in 1969 after falling out of favor with Mao, had spent his final days clutching a copy of the Chinese constitution.
Rather than confront Ai directly on political issues, officers allegedly said they would disgrace him as an “obscene person”—a major tax evader and “bigamist.” (Ai has a two-year-old son by a woman who is not his wife, a fact seldom mentioned in Western media reports.)
One might note here, ruefully, that according to Credit Suisse, London, and the China Reform Foundation, Beijing, unreported household income in China totals $1.4 trillion, equivalent to one third of the country’s GDP (Harperls, December 2010, pp. 15, 74). And if extramarital sex were universally punished in China, scarcely a single businessman, artist or politician would be walking free today.
Whatever one may make of Ai’s version of events, two things are clear.
First, by agitating now on behalf of his colleagues, he has knowingly put himself in renewed jeopardy. “If I don’t speak out for them,” he told the New York Times on Wednesday, “this is not possible, even though it may bring damage to my condition.”
Second, the action is, in effect, a rebuke—and a challenge—to skeptics who have previously questioned his motives and veracity. Ai may indeed be a trickster and opportunist, lacking the gravitas, dedication to hard evidence and long track record of certain activist lawyers, professors and writers. But who, in the Chinese art world, has said more, at greater personal risk, to stronger effect?