Before nodding off, I happened to check the New York Times site to find that the artist Ai Weiwei had been released by Chinese authorities early this morn or late last night.
Having not spoken to any Chinese about this news, I have nothing original to say except that it seems like very good news in terms of free speech on Earth, I think the best I’ve seen in months.
My original inclination was to say that this seems like the best news related to China that I’ve seen in a long time, but that seems a little too broad. I think of the fact that last summer China surpassed Japan to become the second largest economy in the world; or that Chinese officials appear to be acknowledging that there are some problems with the Three Gorges Dam project; or that the Chinese government was meeting with Libya’s opposition leader in Beijing.
So those are all debatably better pieces of news for China, depending on your perspective. I.e., if you are an investor or a Chinese businessperson, you are probably happy that China’s economy is doing fairly well. If you are an environmentalist or live in southern China, you might be happy that the Chinese government is beginning to see the light about their ill-conceived and megalomaniacal Three Gorges Dam (i.e. if you live in southern China, you might be happy to see that the government has the capacity to show a glimmer of insight about environmental hazards associated with overly ambitions attempts to control nature). If you happen to believe that there is some legitimacy to England, France and America’s attempt to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power, and do not believe the conflict is simply a conspiracy among Western powers to sequester oil (as most Chinese seem to think it is), perhaps you will be pleased, if also perplexed, to know that the Chinese were meeting with the rebel leader.
But Ai Weiwei is a different matter. Ai was detained about three months ago, and has hardly been heard from since. I will leave it to you to check out the news about this artist-”dissident”, who has been an (perhaps the most) “outspoken critic” of the Chinese government for a long time. The only thing I can say about the release of Ai Weiwei is that, from everything I have seen and read of how dissidents are treated in this country, the Chinese government would not have released him unless they felt a great deal of pressure to do so, and that pressure, I believe, would have had to come from within Chinese borders.
I wrote a little bit (it’s embarrassing how little I write here about real-consequential political matters, but so it is) about Ai Weiwei’s protest of the demolition of his Shanghai studio on this blog. A friend of mine invited me to go to Shanghai last summer to attend the “protest”, which was really more like a big party in which thousands of Ai Weiwei fans were signing up to go eat river crab in Shanghai. At the time, I was busy and couldn’t go, but it was for the best because Ai Weiwei was put under house arrest and couldn’t attend, and I’m not even sure if the party really happened.
My friend gave me one of the seeds from Ai’s exhibit (or a replica thereof) at the Tate Modern Gallery in London, a souvenir he received for being a follower of Ai. That was as close as either of us got to whatever the protest would have been, had it been allowed to occur.
Now Ai has been released, and the New York Times story suggests that he may have been released under some agreement with the government that would limit his actions. But he has been released, in one piece, and he is talking to the foreign press, and he is still there.
That seems worth celebrating in itself. Chinageeks.org posted a startling list a few months back of the China dissidents who had either been detained or were missing in March. The list is long, and I’m unclear on how comprehensive it is / was, but anyway, just looking at the post gives you a sense of the lack of restraint the Chinese government has when it comes to silencing disagreeable parties.
So it’s cause for celebration that Ai Weiwei had been released. I believe that when you consider peoples’ basic motivations — i.e., the desire of individuals to build and maintain power — politics can become very simple. At its most basic, the decision to release Ai Weiwei might be seen as a concession to the belief of a public, one that remains inscrutable to most of us foreigners, that he should be free. Or at least I hope that’s the case, as the alternative would be that his arrest was meant as a threat to him and others like him that he should keep quiet.
But Ai Weiwei, at this point, seems a bit beyond the fold in my eyes. He had certainly been warned before, and had become too great a target to be used to set an example. It seems to me, and maybe this is more of a hope than a realistic interpretation of events, that perhaps after they caught him they realized they had nabbed too big a fish, and had to let him go. Anyway, he has been let go. Here’s hoping he’s still got gills.