Ai Weiwei is an extremely, extremely talented artist from China, having collaborated in building the Beijing 2008 Olympics’ iconic Bird’s Nest stadium. He is also a human rights activist, and outspoken against the Chinese government, which is ruled by the authoritarian Communist Party. Recently, he has been arrested for investigation of ‘economic crimes’. Several world-renowned museums like The Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, and Tate Modern, have started petitions to release Mr. Weiwei.
China has lately been suppressing news media reports on the recent revolutions in the Middle East, and during this time, Mr. Weiwei posted on his Twitter: “I didn’t care about jasmine at first, but people who are scared by jasmine sent out information about how harmful jasmine is often, which makes me realize that jasmine is what scares them the most. What a jasmine!” This generated buzz about a possible ‘jasmine revolution’ in China, which led the Chinese government to start censoring the word ‘jasmine’. The artist has also accused government officials of corruption in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Clearly, Mr. Weiwei is a man of influence. Yet, arresting him doesn’t lessen his influence. In fact, it rather increases his influence–the Chinese government inspires more suspicion and more distrust in their constituency by using these methods. In this way, Chinese government has arguably done more to incite a ‘jasmine revolution’ than Mr. Weiwei himself.
Do I actually believe a jasmine revolution for democracy could ever really take place in China? No. Not now, at least. China is in a phase of rapid growth right now, and most ordinary people are more concerned about their economic well-being than issues of the government. When the Chinese government begins to seriously impinge upon the economic growth, then there will be a backlash (Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya are quite poor, aren’t they?). China is quite the opposite. They desperately want to become a superpower, and the best way to become one is to have huge economic clout.
China often gets called out by Western nations like the United States for its horrible human rights record. Yet, China always childishly repartees by taunting, “Well, your human rights record isn’t perfect, either! What about Guantanamo?” That is not a solution. Calling out another’s problems does not erase your own problems. At least for US citizens, there is due process. Yet for a citizen of China like Mr. Weiwei, his right to a fair trial and investigation can immediately be waived.
China needs to reconcile the fact that this is no longer the 1970s or the 1980s. There is much greater visibility in the world today, and what happens to a prominent member of the international community will get scrutinized, and what they are doing may be accomplishing the opposite of what they seek.
But one thing always bothers me. Though China’s actions may be ‘scruntinized,’ who can stop the Chinese government? No one, really, if it doesn’t come from the Chinese people themselves. Yet as I’ve said before, ordinary Chinese people are not concerned with these matters at all, and are rather mystified at the whole concept of protesting against the government. More troublingly, Chinese economic clout is already very large–they keep resisting a devaluation of the yuan, and they singlehandedly overturned the ambitious aims in the 2009 UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen:
China knows it is becoming an uncontested superpower; indeed its newfound muscular confidence was on striking display in Copenhagen. […] I left Copenhagen more despondent than I have felt in a long time. After all the hope and all the hype, the mobilisation of thousands, a wave of optimism crashed against the rock of global power politics, fell back, and drained away.
— How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room, The Guardian, Mark Lynas
China does not care about multilateralism or the opinion of other countries. It will continue using coal, continuing propping up dictatorships and other dubious governments, so long as it serves Chinese interest. In short, China is fast turning into a bully that even the United States can’t deflect. Or even worse, the United States is becoming a bystander, unable to do anything but watch.
Slate Magazine has a great article and slideshow of Mr. Weiwei’s works. I highly encourage you to look at the slideshow, because Mr. Weiwei, in all fundamental respects, is a staggering artist.
I would like to remark as a Chinese-American, I feel a loyalty to both countries, but that does not preclude me from analyzing either government, whether positively or negatively. Of course there are arguments against what I have just stated, and feel free to comment on them. Keep in mind, this is just a ‘brief’ analysis, so obviously I cannot address all facets of your brilliant tactical minds.