:: Article

Breaking the Firewall

By Max Dunbar.


Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009, Ai Weiwei, trans, ed Lee Ambrozy, The MIT Press, 2011

So much for the end of history. The superpower of the twenty-first century won’t be a liberal democracy but a country in which the following takes place: ‘torture, execution (in which China is world leader), excessive use of force in public order policing, repression of dissent and forced repatriation of asylum seekers without recourse to a refugee determination procedure.’ When the glorious people’s republic celebrated its sixtieth birthday, the artist Ai Weiwei wrote on his blog that ‘Sixty years have passed and we still haven’t seen a vote, there is no universal education, no health insurance, no open press, no freedom of speech, no freedom of information, no freedom to relocate, no independent judiciary, there are no public watchdogs, no independent labor unions, no national army, no constitutional protection, and everything that’s left is a Grass Mud Horse.’

China has retained the totalitarian evils of the old communist system, and also incorporated the worst of the free market. Around a year back, ugly news began to seep through the firewall, news of the Shenzhen IPad farms where workers jumped out of factory windows to escape their oppression. A recent follow up found that the professional routine of a Chengdu Apple factory worker featured military-style drills and public humiliations, crowded dormitories, restrictions on personal and family life, exhaustive overtime and a basic wage of £5:20 a day. In terms of conditions it compares quite badly to the life of a plantation slave in the American Deep South. The company’s response to the controversy was to ask workers to sign an anti-suicide document, with the acknowledgement that their families would only receive the legal minimum of compensation.

Yet the main thing is to be on the winning side. Capitalists and socialists alike can support a country that combines the worst of capitalism with the worst of socialism. On a trade delegation last year, David Cameron told reporters that he had ‘a very high-level dialogue with China on a number of issues including human rights’ but that ‘we shouldn’t be lecturing and hectoring’ on such delicate matters as, say, the indentured slavery of Olympic migrant workers, or repression of the Tibetans and Uyghurs. As always, the self-appointed opposition does not oppose. Guardian comment editor Seamus Milne praised the PRC’s ‘blithe disregard for free market orthodoxy’ which had ‘only added to its success in riding out the west’s slump.’ At last year’s Progressive London conference, former mayor Ken Livingstone – who incredibly is Labour’s candidate again in 2012 – raved about China’s high levels of growth, without acknowledging that its growth is built on the exploitation of its workforce. Western intellectuals are dazzled by visions of serenity gardens and giggling, fluttery geisha girls. Bob Dylan dances for coins at a tyrant’s court.

Ai Weiwei is spoken of as China’s Warhol. He has exhibited all over Europe and America, and his work covers film, photography, architecture and installation. One of his exhibitions consists of a million painted sunflower seeds; another, ‘Fragments’, is a structure made of the debris from ruined Qing temples; still another, ‘Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn’ featured the artist doing just that. Ai could not type when he started blogging in 2006, but quickly became a fluid and graceful online writer, and it’s clear that in the internet he saw new possibilities for conceptual art. He also joined Twitter, saying with characteristic playfulness that all the great Mao quotes were 140 characters or less.

Most of the 2006 texts are discussions and ruminations of art that often fascinate – Ai says that photography only became an expressive art around twenty years ago; before then the camera was a mere recording device. But there was always a political and idealist dimension to his work. Ai’s father, the poet Ai Qing, was caught up in the anti-rightist purge in 1958. ‘I spent five years with him at a labour camp where he cleaned toilets,’ Ai told a gaming website. In 1978 the artist participated in the ‘Democracy Wall’, in which people wrote pro-democracy arguments and free opinions on a wall in Xidan, Beijing; the idea man behind this, a former Red Guard, was sentenced to fifteen years. Ai designed the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium that was used for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but boycotted the opening ceremony. The Bird’s Nest, he wrote, was ‘designed to embody the Olympic spirit of ‘fair competition’. It tells people that freedom is possible but needs fairness, courage and strength. Following the same principles, I will stay away from the opening ceremony’.

Throughout the late 2000s Ai’s blog became more and more political, and it attracted attention. The power of the online form in dissent is of course exaggerated, but it is there and dictators are afraid of it. China’s regime wrapped its country in a firewall. In 2006 Google developed a mainland China version of the famous search engine that blocked out search results relating to Tianamen or the Dalai Lama, and the government created a new offence of ‘internet addiction’, punishable by time in a military prison.

In his introduction to Ai’s collection, translator Lee Ambrozy writes that the government has introduced a legion of censors and yellow commenters that ‘manipulates public opinion in chat rooms or in blog comment threads’, plus an online secret police of more than 280,000 which ‘perpetually trolls the Internet, almost immediately deleting posts that aren’t politically correct.’ Over the later writings there is an urgency to the book and a sense of tightening, a hand flexing into a fist. ‘You persistently delete, so I’ll just repost,’ a stoical Ai writes in April 2009. Arrests, searches, surveillance and police assaults followed before Ai’s arrest and imprisonment in April this year, for unspecified ‘economic crimes’.

Ai’s treatment is just one case in a recent crackdown on artists, activists and intellectuals that has been going on since February. According to Amnesty, ‘more than a hundred activists – many of them active on Twitter and blogs – have been detained, put under surveillance or illegal house arrest, or have simply gone missing.’ With talk of a ‘jasmine revolution’, are the Chinese authorities afraid of a uprising like that which happened and is still happening in the theocratic world? Western pundits and pseudo-realists will shake their heads at the gilded hipster Twitter class and say ‘Never happen’ – and yet , they said that about Tunisia… and Egypt… and Syria… and Bahrain…

The writings of pro-democracy activists can seem abstract and unreal, and Ai emphasised the human cost of life under totalitarianism. In 2008 Ai began a ‘Citizen’s Investigation’ following the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in the Sinchuan earthquake of May that year. Seven thousand schoolrooms collapsed, but witnesses said that many surrounding buildings were left undamaged. It’s widely believed that the dead children were casualties of ‘tofu-dregs engineering’; a derisive Chinese term for shonky public buildings developed by cowboy builders and corrupt officials. Immediately after the disaster, a schoolteacher was condemned in the national press for running away as soon as the quake hit: ‘at which point Fan shouted ‘earthquake’, and bolted out of the classroom, leaving his students behind.’ Ai contrasted this cowardly, but natural reaction, with the deadly laziness of the authorities that built the schools:

The Ministry of Education holds jurisdiction over an area where hundreds of schools have collapsed, yet its own corruption and neglect of obligation are handled calmly, as if nothing happened. However, we refuse to pardon the lack of ‘ethical responsibility’ of a middle school teacher who, in a panic, ran for his dear life. This is truly a joke with socialist characteristics.

The Citizens’ Investigation focused on finding out the names of people who died in the earthquake, which the government refused to release. Ai told an interviewer that someone’s name is ‘the smallest, most basic unit that helps us attest to an individual’s existence. When we die, if all that supplants one’s lost life is an Arabic numeral, life is lacking in basic dignity.’ From his blog: ‘That name will belong to them three years from now, five years, eighteen or nineteen years later; it is everything about them which may be remembered, it is everything that might be evoked.’

In Germany Ai produced ‘Remembering’, an exhibition of Chinese texts made from children’s backpacks, that covered the wall of the Haus der Kunst in Munich. The text spelled out the words of a bereaved Sichuan mother – ‘She lived happily in this world for seven years.’ It’s a testament to the moving potential of conceptual art. It reminds me of something that Greg Palast said, that sometimes the protests that liberate us are quieter.



Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 22nd, 2011.