Brave Thinkers 2011 November 2011

Ai Weiwei

More
What's Your Take?  Rate this Brave Thinker:
1 star = Not taking much risk | 5 stars = Risking it all

Artist; dissident
Beijing, China

An activist artist enrages the Chinese Communist Party—less with his work than with his tweets.

Those wondering about the price of embarrassing the Chinese Communist Party could find a clue at Ai Weiwei’s gate on the evening of June 22. Emerging that night after 81 days in detention, the once-rotund artist and provocateur displayed a relatively svelte figure, dozens of pounds lighter than when he was taken into custody. Ai had spent his detention in the presence of round-the-clock guards who were never more than four feet from him, even in the bathroom, and who insisted—among other petty demands—that Ai sleep with both hands in full view. The pressure, combined with the notoriously poor food available to Chinese prisoners, seemed to have an effect.

Brave Thinkers 2011The reason for this detention was not, most likely, Ai’s artwork, but rather his social networking. Many of the 60,000-plus tweets he’d posted before his arrest mocked the Chinese Communist Party and its incompetence and cover-ups. Because the Chinese government blocks its citizens from Twitter, Ai’s audience was—and is—mostly foreigners. Insofar as Ai’s Twitter feed is a sort of performance art intended for his public, this makes perfect sense: he is exhibited overseas far more frequently than in China. But insofar as he saw his Twitter feed as a setting for activism, he ran the considerable risk that he’d be left with only foreigners to come to his aid when trouble arrived. Which is precisely what happened: after Ai’s arrest, Europeans, North Americans, and even Hong Kongers staged protests, but not mainland Chinese, who presumably are the intended beneficiaries of his political activism.

As a condition of his June release, Ai agreed to stop making public statements for a full year. And yet, in less than two months, he was tweeting again (including uploading a picture of a scale showing his weight) and joining (the blocked) Google+. If he’s daring the government into an encore, it’s a performance that will be staged for his audience, and on his terms.


Image: Rex Features/Associated Press

Adam Minter is a Shanghai-based writer for Bloomberg World View and the author of the forthcoming Wasted: Inside the Multi-Billion Dollar Trade in American Trash
Jump to comments
Presented by

Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the Bloomberg World View blog. He is writing a book about the globalization of the scrap recycling industry for Bloomsbury Press.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In