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Ai weiwei: Who is afraid of the Chinese government? 


My column in this week’s Maclean’s magazine (no link yet) is nominally about the contrast between the impotence of shock art in the West versus its all-too-threatening status in China. But mostly it was an excuse to get on the record some facts about the what is, effectively, the kidnapping and detention of the artist Ai Weiwei by the Chinese government.

The government has put forth a  list of reasons for his arrest, including pornography (for this picture), plagiarism, and according to this story in the Guardian today, tax evasion. No one takes these claims seriously; it’s fairly obvious Ai is being persecuted for marrying his art with social activism (especially leading investigations into corruption and a cover-up surrounding the Sichuan earthquake).

Ai’s arrest has raised a great deal of alarm in parts of the West. Among the people or organizations that have expressed public concern and requested his release: The US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, US state department spokesman Mark Toner, UK foreign secretary William Hague, the EU delegation to China, German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, and French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero. In addition, Anish Kapoor and Salman Rushdie have expressed their solidarity with Ai.

On April 18th, a group of about 100 members of the Toronto art community took part in the 1001 Chairs demonstration outside the Chinese consulate, and called on the “Prime Minister and our Minister of Foreign Affairs to express concern over the treatment of Ai Weiwei”. To no avail:Among those who have said nothing in public: Canada’s ambassador to China David Mulroney, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, departed DFAIT minister Lawrence Cannon, new DFAIT minister John Baird, and Heritage Minister James Moore. Brock professor of political science Charles Burton has posted a few items on his blog about the Ai Weiwei case.

After 43 days without any contact, Ai’s wife was allowed to visit him for 20 minutes on Monday. Her account of his condition does not sound great. As Burton and others have pointed out, this is not an isolated case: a disturbing number of people have disappeared in China since the Tunisian-inspired “Jasmine” revolution  began a few months ago. Also, Hong Kong street artists who have been stenciling in support of Ai have similarly been arrested.

(Props to Marina Galperina of Animal New York for keeping tabs on this).