Brave Thinkers 2011 November 2011

Ai Weiwei

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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
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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.

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