Ai Weiwei and the Art of Protest
In China, there is a real problem with avenues of redress. The dismay throughout the country in October 2011 at the hit-and-run death of a toddler grew out of frustration with a legal system that appears not to weigh gradations in culpability and in which, according to a recent article published by the Association of Corporate Counsel, politics trumps the law. (To practice in China, lawyers have to swear allegiance to the Communist Party.)
One of Ai’s visits to court included the following scene, as described by New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos:
There was a line of bank-teller-style windows, and, at the one closest to us, a tiny old woman in a pink padded jacket was bellowing into a rectangular opening in the glass. “How could the other side win without any evidence?” she shouted. “Did they bribe the head of the court?” On the opposite side of the glass, two women in uniform were listening with resigned expressions suggesting that she had been at it for a while.
History suggests that the need for redress, for justice—as distinct from problems of material distribution—often holds the seeds of transformation. Will the petitions of mourners hold such power in this case? This is precisely the question that Ai has raised with his Sichuan Earthquake Names Project, his ceaseless, performative petitioning, and his very public effort to use the Internet to resist the governmental suppression of mourning.
The opponent is formidable. Along with Iran and Vietnam, China is one of the most aggressive Internet censors in the world. At a maximum, 3 percent of China’s Internet users are able to get around the country’s Great Firewall to use Twitter or other blocked sites.
Yet as many as 450 million people may use China’s two main microblogging platforms, and millions have developed a culture of humor, wordplay and speed to get around the censors’ tools. These are the practices that made it impossible to censor commentary about the high-speed rail crash, according to Ethan Zuckerman, the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media.
Significantly, the Chinese government has never released an official death toll from the great unmentionable, the Tiananmen Square massacre. According to Reuters, in the months leading up to the twentieth anniversary, calls for a re-evaluation of the 1989 protest movement circulated on the Internet. It was in this context that China shut down Twitter in June 2009.
But ten months later, even with the Twitter freeze ongoing, when Ai Weiwei went back to Chengdu to file his complaint against the police in April 2010, he tweeted all day about his dinner plans, inviting the people of Chengdu to join him. So many showed up that the restaurant had to put tables on the street. One man passed by just to say hello to “Teacher Ai” but chose not to stay. Police arrived to videotape those who did and, eventually, to shut the party down. Even in China, then—a country, one should note, without freedom of association—Twitter is powerful enough to get strangers and police officers to a flash party.
Of course, this was no ordinary occasion. The guests ate pigs’ feet together to celebrate one man’s relentless petitioning and affirm his steely pursuit of honor for the dead.
Repeated petitioning. Polemical parties. In the American colonies, this was the stuff of revolution. Perhaps, in artful, ironic performances lifted aloft by new media, such seeds are being cast abroad once more?