On the modern global economic and political landscape, few countries loom larger or cast a darker shadow than China. In the United States, China is perceived to be the country’s chief economic rival – despite the powerhouses’ overt interdependence – and is often the subject of fierce scrutiny.
There are many conscious and unconscious elements that combine to generate this climate of distrust, but principal among them is the political structure of the country. The People’s Republic of China, as it is officially known, is governed by a single Communist party. For U.S. citizens, the concept of communism carries residual historical weight that most people reading this are probably familiar with and which informs popular perceptions of labor conditions. In other words, many in the U.S. believe (perhaps correctly) China is potentially responsible for a great many economic woes.
That debate aside, a perhaps more significant and alarming issue dominates the social reality of the country: despite the internet-facilitated modern age of nearly-universal freedom of speech, Chinese authorities impose extreme restrictions on personal liberty and expression as a means of maintaining control of the populace. The power of this government is so absolute that protestors are known to disappear – abducted and interrogated – sometimes never to be seen again.
In response to these conditions, China has a long history of dissident activity among the small and besieged intellectual and artistic community. There are many famous examples of this struggle, including “Tank Man,” the Tiananmen Square protester, who would not budge in spite of an oncoming column of tanks. Two years ago, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a writer and human rights activist who is currently incarcerated for inciting calls for political and civil reform in the country. And this year civil unrest began to spread among disenfranchised and impoverished rural communities.
Enter into the fray Ai Weiwei, the 55-year-old, epic-bearded, notorious Chinese conceptual artist, persistent dissident, and good friend of the aforementioned Liu Xiaobo. He’s a man you may not be familiar with, but as has become my habit with this blog, I want to make you aware of yet another excellent example of inspiring, freedom-seeking humanity.
I recently had the pleasure of watching Alison Klayman’s documentary about Ai Weiwei, Never Sorry, on Netflix (it is currently streaming – go watch it!). To say I was moved by it is an understatement. If you are not already familiar with Ai’s work, I strongly recommend checking out the Foreign Policy photo essay above, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” I already had a passing knowledge of Ai’s unique projects and the critical undertones of many of them, but the film provides an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the man’s motivations, including the life experiences that molded his scathing attitude toward the government.
Never Sorry goes on to document the last few years of Ai’s life, during which he has risen to prominence as an international symbol of intellectual curiosity and human rights activism, but also as a repeatedly detained and perpetually monitored enemy of the state. Throughout his growth as a pop culture icon (he has many followers and uses internet services like Twitter to great effect), he has cultivated a philosophy that emphatically asserts that freedom of expression is the stuff of life and that to restrict that freedom is nothing short of evil.
Communication is the means by which humans affirm their existence, and Ai is intent on assuring the lines of communication are open by defying the oppressive will of the government. It sounds overblown and faux-heroic, but the point is that his is a philosophy I agree with.
All of this admiration aside, I was initially hesitant to write about Ai Weiwei. A part of me was skeptical of the man’s rock star status and wondered if he was the real deal. He has lived and worked in China most of his life, but has also lived in New York City for more than a decade, attending school there. Not that that necessarily undermines his credentials as a punk provocateur, but in watching Never Sorry, I wanted to be sure my own personal belief in him was genuine, instead of fueled unconsciously by a like-likes-like satisfaction with his western-style tactics and attitude.
Of course the documentary is sympathetic to Ai, but after watching one particularly emotional and heart-rending sequence, in which he and his team pursue a project to attain the government-concealed names of more than 5,000 children that allegedly died in a recent earthquake as a result of shoddy school construction, my fears were dispelled. And I was elated when he happily celebrated the government’s retaliatory destruction of his newly-constructed studio after denouncing the famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics when its construction necessitated the removal of citizens’ homes. Ai has been referred to as China’s modern conscience, and upon listening to him explain how those children no longer have a voice so someone must speak for them, I can truly understand why.
Another artist interviewed for the documentary goes on to say that in China, a country with a staggering population, individuals who truly care about the people of the country – like Ai – must be treasured and protected. The intelligence with which he uses media to cultivate popularity as his armor and employs his power to wage war on the system from within despite the risk of reprisal is incredible.
There are far too few examples of this kind of bravery on the world stage, but I hope you take the time to acquaint yourself with this one. We may live in a place where personal freedom is sacred, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from those still fighting to build such a place for themselves.