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A police surveillance camera mounted to a lamppost on a quiet suburban road in Beijing has one target: the turquoise door to the home of the artist and activist Ai Weiwei. The camera was installed two years ago, as Ai’s blogging, tweeting, and art increasingly challenged the Chinese government’s authority. This spring, during Ai’s 81-day detention, it was a reminder of the omnipresence of the government. Afterward, it captured throngs of visitors, many of whom flung money over his gate to help him pay a $2.4 million tax bill. The camera remains in place during his continuing house arrest; now it’s decorated with a red lantern marking National Day of the People’s Republic of China.
Anger at the government is no longer the province of activists alone. In mid-December, as the villagers of Wukan were in open revolt against corrupt leaders and Chinese everywhere were wondering if the investigation into the summer’s deadly train crash would be more than a coverup, China Youth Daily announced the character of the year. It is kong, which means control. The official explanation for the choice—made by some 2 million people online—is wonderfully confident: Kong reflects Beijing’s economic policy, which aims to keep inflation under control. The word is also used in everyday conversation to describe the government’s control of just about everything else. That went unmentioned.