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Why China Fears Ai Weiwei

Just when the controversy surrounding imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize was fading away, China's recent detention of artist Ai Weiwei, a co-designer of the "Bird's Nest" Beijing Olympic Stadium and a fierce critic of the government, has put the regime in the international spotlight again. Many foreign governments charge that the detention is nothing but politically motivated, while Beijing maintains that Ai is under investigation for potential "economic crimes" that have nothing to do with politics.

Unlike Liu Xiaobo, who was put in jail for 11 years on charges of "subversion of the state," Ai Weiwei has been using the arts as his main expression of dissent. His increasingly vocal criticism of Chinese authorities since 2008 has made him a controversial figure in both arts and political circles. Although Ai is no average Chinese artist, his arrest does raise questions about the role of the artist in contemporary China.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, artists and intellectuals played a leading role in China's struggle against foreign invasions. They considered themselves the educated elites, the social conscience, and even saviors of their motherland. But in the first three decades of the People's Republic, artists were under strict ideological control and their works had to "serve the people." There was hardly any space for the creative mind to go beyond Communist Party guidelines. Even artists who followed these guidelines could find themselves in trouble: Ai Qing, Ai Weiwei's father, was famous for his inspirational patriotic poems in the 1930s and '40s, but was nonetheless persecuted as a "rightist" in 1958 and then spent 20 years as a farm laborer.

Ironically, the opposite is the case today: Artists enjoy unprecedented levels of freedom, as long as they don't meddle in politics. They pursue artistic activities in a very competitive marketplace; they perform on the most prestigious international stages; and their works are highly sought-after collectibles in the global arts world. Most artists have become market-driven entrepreneurs rather than pioneers of political radicalism. Those who are socially conscious tend to settle for gradual reform and transformation instead of openly criticizing the government.

Bold Art, Bold Activism

Ai Weiwei himself is a case in point. After spending more than a decade in the U.S., he only succeeded as an avant-garde artist with international fame after returning to China in the mid-1990s. And his bold creations are large-scale ventures. In one exhibition in Germany, he had 1,001 participants fly in from China at a cost of 3.1 million euros. Sotheby's (BID) in February sold a 100-kilogram sample of Ai's 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds exhibition at London's Tate Modern for close to $560,000.

But unlike his Chinese peers, Ai decided to challenge the current political order. He featured a photo of Tiananmen with his middle finger, used the f-word on the Chinese Communist Party leadership in another work. And what infuriated the local and central governments further was his launch of an independent investigation into the deaths of more than 5,000 school kids during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province.

In a country where direct confrontation with the authorities is considered risky, Ai's political activism and his vision of China's future put him on a collision course with the one-party state, which is determined to maintain its grip on power and social stability at any cost.

The recent unrest in the Arab world and the call for a Chinese version of the "Jasmine Revolution" has put the Chinese leadership on high alert. Together with the 1989 Tiananmen movement and the fall of the former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, the ongoing Middle Eastern turmoil is regarded by Beijing as a negative lesson. The security apparatus has implemented a widespread crackdown on dissident voices, aimed at preventing another Tiananmen. Many international observers see Ai's arrest in such a context.

If Ai is suspected of violations of law, he should receive a fair trial. But a political prosecution of him under the guise of "economic crimes" will not only generate more international criticism but also signal another huge step backward in the progress China has made since the persecution of Ai Weiwei's father.

Wenran Jiang is the Mactaggart Research Chair of the China Institute at the University of Alberta and the senior fellow of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. He was also a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., from September 2009 to March 2010.

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