China’s Downtrodden Sunflower Seeds

Despite Ai Weiwei's release on bail, we should expect no relaxation in the Communist Party's repression of intellectual freedom

George Walden

Something troubles me about the Ai Weiwei affair. First, the artist victim. Victim he undoubtedly is, and a brave man, but more architect, designer, photographer and blogger than artist. For 12 years the well-born celebrity (his father was China’s best-known poet) lived in New York. There he learned to play the conceptual game, a century-old style belatedly imported by British then Chinese artists, and is prolific in the high-toned vacuity of the genre. “After Duchamp I realised that being an artist was more about lifestyle and attitude than producing some product.” Before the ready-mades Duchamp produced superb paintings, but never mind. And when his politicised blog is described as “social sculpture” in the manner of Joseph Beuys, Ai does not demur.

Emerging from his fellow-travelling phase, Auden pointed to the dangers of mistaking political gestures for art: “To do this is to reduce art to an endless series of momentary and arbitrary ‘happenings’ and to produce in artists and public alike a conformation to the tyranny of the passing moment, which is far more enslaving, far more destructive of integrity and originality, than any thoughtless copying of the past.”

Ai’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), a stunt to show irreverence for antiquity, is actually a kind of copying too: as early as 1919 Duchamp painted a moustache and goatee on a photograph of the Mona Lisa. But then as Gore Vidal remarked, everything changes except the avant garde. It is not done to say it — having your political heart correctly positioned forestalls criticism — but Ai’s works can be as lumbering in concept as they are laborious in construction. Endorsing a political sentiment does not oblige us to admire its supposedly artistic expression. “The work continues to pose challenging questions. What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together?” The Tate curator’s words on his sunflower seeds fit the work perfectly. Like the “sculpture” itself they are ponderous, inflated, pious and banal.

One thing appears certain: that Ai’s cosmopolitan status has already ensured treatment less harsh than the 11 years meted out to the Nobel Peace prizewinner and university lecturer Liu Xiaobo, a serious political thinker, though a non-celebrity.

The second false note concerns Ai’s Western art-world supporters. There is something a little indecent about the link between      human rights in China and the commercialised showmanship of the contemporary art market. Consistency is not to be expected in these circles, but I do not recall the Western arts community making impassioned protests when the Chinese communists were    murdering millions. Under the regime so many of them championed, Ai would be long dead, rather than released on bail, and in many an arts-person nostalgia for the Mao-badge era lingers. Most phony of all of course is China’s pretext for locking him up — tax irregularities. True, he has pleaded guilty and thereby earned release after less than three months. In a perverse sense they have little choice but to go for him. In the wake of the Arab Spring the country is undergoing one of its periodic spasms of reaction: images of crowded squares give the Communist Party the jitters, and they can hardly leave someone as outspoken and prominent as him at liberty while arresting so many others, of whom we hear so little. 

So an artist of debatable merit (if unquestionably a man of talent) has been imprisoned by a nervous regime on dubious charges, and is championed by Westerners with dubious records on China. But then it is futile to insist on facts, the media being very much the message in such cases. What matters now is whether the Communist Party has the sense to resolve the Ai Weiwei affair swiftly, perhaps by imposing some heavy fines, or contrives in its stubbornness and paranoia to go on building him into a cause célèbre, in a way that could signal a new phase of the protest movement in China, and force Western governments to ratchet up their protests, with all that could mean for their economic interests.

That sounds ominous, yet from another perspective the Ai Weiwei episode could be a cause for hope. Are China’s increasingly vicious measures against reformers self-defeating? Are their Canute-like efforts to stem the internet tide destined to fail, as word of Ai’s arrest and that of others spreads beyond the intellectuals into the middle classes, and becomes a focus for their discontents? Is this just the beginning? Could it all end like Soviet Russia?

In Beijing’s repressive methods there are surface similarities with Moscow. As in Soviet times Chinese dissidents, whistleblowers and petitioners are being sectioned as mentally ill and consigned to psychiatric wards. Imperviousness to world opinion where the legitimacy of the regime was concerned was a feature of Soviet repression too: the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the internationally acclaimed scientist Andrei Sakharov in 1975 did not prevent his arrest and exile five years later, any more than it has protected Liu Xiaobo. Then, in 1989, under Gorbachev, Sakharov was elected to the new Soviet Parliament.

It is easy to become lost in such comparisons, and a mistake to be too sanguine about the role of China’s dissidents in the future. Some basics. The Soviet Union did not collapse because of constraints on intellectual freedom, but because compared to the West it was in a state of all-round decline. In post-Mao China life for the majority has become immeasurably better: when your leaders stop purging or starving you to death by the million, that in itself is progress, not to speak of the country’s extraordinary economic advance.

My first sight of China was in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution; my most recent, last year, with many a visit in between. It is a different country, and not just materially speaking. We will get nowhere in our musings about human rights in China unless we recognise that for all the current backlash the country remains infinitely freer than at any time since the 1949 communist revolution. The Chinese security people may appear to be winning out at the moment, but as Ai Weiwei has acknowledged, they are a lot smarter than the ones who beat “black elements” to death in public in the late Sixties, or the thugs who followed me around in my car, a foot from my bumper, headlights blazing, and screamed abuse (“ci mai” — motherfucker) when I protested.

The key question is how much support or tolerance the regime continues to enjoy. Whether in the Middle East or China, Westerners too easily see the Facebook generation as the voice of the immediate future; doubtful, it seems to me, in both cases. Our gullibility on China was neatly illustrated a few years back when a best-selling Chinese novel, Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, was reviewed in Britain as if it were a heartfelt plea for the environment; in fact it was a startlingly nationalistic tract, calling for a less sheep-like and more wolfishly assertive China. Nor are Chinese Christians, however numerous (and there are now as many as Communist Party members), or the Taoist/Buddhist Falun Gong a reliable indicator of what’s happening. Underneath it all nationalistic sentiment is growing in tandem with national success, in the way you would expect in a vibrantly renascent power.

The average Chinese will not have heard of Ai Weiwei, and is unlikely to be fired up by sub-Duchampian games, however heartfelt the political message, or by denunciations of their government by celebrity dissidents. If they are told he is a well-to-do urban tax-evader, sometime foreign resident and practitioner of an art form they do not understand, which he uses to slander the Motherland, they will know what they think. For them a full belly, a flat, four wheels instead of two, and a fierce new pride trump any amount of artistic self-expression. “In China human rights means having gas for your car,” was one minister’s version.

It follows, of course, that should there be a serious slippage in the rate of material advance, alongside continued scandals involving Communist Party corruption, land-grabbing and the rest, the anarchic embers in Chinese history could reignite and bring populace and intellectuals together. The recent upsurge in incidents resulting from strikes and police brutality notwithstanding, at present that seems unlikely.

It is not just the size but the quality of the protest movement that matters. Dissidence in China has a mixed record, and it is no reflection on their courage or sufferings to say that people of the stature of Sakharov, or in literature the poet Joseph Brodsky, are still awaited, though the astrophysicist Fang Lizti, now in the US has a fine record. The father of modern Chinese dissidents is Wei Jingsheng, formerly an electrician, who in 1978 put up illicit posters in Beijing. “Democracy Wall” was born — and within a few weeks obliterated. Wei was condemned to 15 years in prison and in labour camps, a terrifying experience during which he was tortured and lost all his teeth. An international outcry obliged the Chinese government to expel him to America in 1997. Later Wei insisted the Chinese people do want democracy, rather than some softened form of party dictatorship. Then he claimed that China needed no centralised authority at all.

Another prominent exile was the self-described commandant of the Tiananmen uprising, Wuer Kaixi, who moved to Taiwan. In allowing dissidents to emigrate, the CCP calculated that they would not be unified enough to establish a movement in exile, and they were right. They retain influence, but their revolt was over a quarter of a century ago, its leaders have been scattered, conditions in China have improved vastly, and Wuer Kaixi has been honest about the effects of exile: “In China we were ignorant of what individualism, love and consumerism were. Everything was communal and political. In the West we discovered all that.”

At home, as abroad, a softer life has blunted the reformers’ edge. Then there is the attitude of the West. Hu Ping, editor of the New York-based Chinese monthly Beijing Spring and a friend of Liu Xiaobo, wrote bitterly on the subject following Liu’s Nobel award: “As they [the Communist Party] see it, the current strategy works. The formula ‘money + violence’ works, and we stay on top. We know what the world means by human rights and democracy, but why should we do that? Aren’t we getting stronger and richer all the time? Twenty years ago the West wasn’t afraid of us, and now they have to be. Why should we change what works?”

That was not the case in 1980s Moscow, where nothing worked at all. The real parallel is with contemporary Russia. As Ai is imprisoned the former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been sent down for another six years on tax charges too.

Meanwhile both regimes protest their ultimately democratic credentials. In an uncharacteristically soothing statement Putin has said that it would take time for a multiparty system to take root in Russia. On the eve of a trip to Britain in 2006 the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, said something similar: “Democracy is a value pursued by all mankind and a fruit of civilisation created by mankind. However, in different historical stages and different countries democracy is achieved through different forms and in different ways.”

Beneath the banner of cultural difference each country is seeking to ward off the advent of representative government in any meaningful sense. What the sweet-talk comes down to is the perpetuation of a central role for the state, a single party in all but name, highly circumscribed freedom of expression and a readiness to crush dissent.

As Russia edges backwards and China’s zigzag liberalisation becomes more zag than zig, a certain alignment between the two countries is taking place. In Russia political reform went first, the economy next. In China it has been the other way around, yet in the long term both are converging in the direction of “managed democracy”, a Russian euphemism for a single-party state.

In his most airy obscurities (“You need a purpose to express yourself, but that expression is its own purpose”) Ai Weiwei can sound strangely Mao-like, but on politics he can be crisply pragmatic. Of the change in China’s leadership due to be ratified by the 18th CCP congress next year he has observed: “We are not expecting much from the next generation of leaders. Maybe the generation after. After another decade they will be more open in their ideas.”

If he is saying that sunflower seeds do not flower overnight, especially when they have been downtrodden for so long, conceptually speaking, I would go along with that.

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