Ai Weiwei: Why does he make Chinese authorities nervous?

Ai Weiwei: Why does he make Chinese authorities nervous?


The famous Chinese artist and political dissident Ai Weiwei hasn’t been heard from since his arrest Sunday by Chinese authorities. The disappearance of Mr. Ai, who uses his art to express political dissent, is just one of a slew of recent arrests by the Chinese government in what seems to be a bid to prevent protests inspired by the Middle East uprisings to China. Ai has long been at odds with the Chinese government, and this isn’t the first confrontation.

What has made Ai a marked man in China?

Ariel Zirulnick, Correspondent


In this Nov. 17, 2010 file photo, artist Ai Weiwei arrives at the Wenyuhe court to support fellow artist Wu Yuren during his trial in Beijing. China blocked Ai Weiwei, one of its most famous contemporary artists, from taking a flight to Hong Kong on Sunday, April 3, and police later raided his Beijing studio, the man’s assistant said. (Andy Wong/AP)

He is internationally known.

Ai is China’s most internationally recognized artist. He designed the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics (although he later distanced himself from the project, saying he did not want to glorify China and the Olympics) and has shown his work in numerous galleries and museums around the world.

His “sunflower seeds” exhibition, which consists of more than 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds hand-painted by more than 1,000 Chinese artists, is on display at London’s Tate Museum. His acclaim makes his activism more difficult for Chinese authorities to tamp down.

He uses Twitter to criticize Chinese policies.

Almost 75,000 people follow Ai on Twitter, where he sends out multiple political messages a day. Twitter may be blocked in China, but Ai’s commentary is still finding its way online – and there’s not much the Chinese government can do about it. Tech-savvy Chinese often use proxy servers to bypass Chinese censors and access Twitter.

His father was a famous revolutionary.

Although Ai has been on the outs with Chinese authorities for many years, he has never before been arrested, at least partially because of his prominent heritage, the Financial Times suggests. He is the son of the famous Communist poet, Ai Qing, and the descendants of revolutionary heroes receive protection in China. But it probably doesn’t help that his father later ended up on the outs with the Communist authorities during the Cultural Revolution. The Ai family was banished to the Gobi desert for many years.

He supported investigations into child deaths in the Sichuan earthquake.

Following the deadly Sichuan earthquake in 2008 – in which government-built schools collapsed with children inside because of shoddy construction – Ai threw his support behind an investigation into the incident that was started by another Chinese artist. The goal was to collect the names of all the children who died in the earthquake.

Perhaps his most famous act of artistic defiance stemmed from that investigation. He collected children’s backpacks and arranged them so that they spelled out the reaction of one Chinese mother whose child died in the earthquake: “She lived happily for seven years in the world.” The artwork was displayed in Munich.

He mocks and criticizes artists who support the government.

Ai is also on the outs with Chinese artists who have opted to toe the government line. He told the Financial Times that art can either “work to encourage individual strength, to encourage consciousness,” or it can be “part of state power.” “To glorify this kind of totalitarian society, I think is shameful,” he said.

He called the 2008 Olympic games “propaganda” and accused the artists involved in the opening ceremony, including directors Steven Spielberg and Zhang Yimou, of disregarding their responsibilities as artists.


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