Late last night, Ai Wei Wei, one of China’s most high-profile and controversial artists, and “perhaps the most documented Chinese public figure alive,” was detained in Beijing as he was preparing to board a flight to Hong Kong.
Although Beijing police officials haven't confirmed his arrest, it isn’t at all striking that the 53-year-old Ai, the son of a celebrated revolutionary poetwho was himself nearly beaten to death during the Cultural Revolution, has been detained. If anything, it’s a wonder it’s taken so long.
Ai is in many ways the Arundhati Roy of China, the eternal ‘dissident’. The man who designed the stylish Bird's Nest, the Beijing Olympics stadium, disassociated himself from the “faked happiness” engineered by the Communist Party’s propaganda machine, and criticised the “blind” nationalism that the Olympics was being used to whip up. In 2008, after a monstrous earthquake in Sichuan province in China’s northwest killed over 70,000 people, Ai launched a ‘Citizen’s Investigation’ to challenge the official narrative about the number of children killed.
Leveraging his fan following on Twitter, Ai has taunted and tormented Chinese censors and security authorities, with some outlandish protests – including a ‘TweetUp’ in Chengdu (in Sichuan province) where merely having dinner with Ai served as an act of defiance.
Along the way there were gradual signs that for all of Ai’s ‘revolutionary’ family history, official tolerance for his open display of dissent was running thin. He was put under house arrest in November 2010, and his studio in Shanghai was demolished in January 2011. Ahead of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo for jailed Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo, the paranoid authorities in Beijing barred Ai from leaving the country.
In much the same way that the liberal media – in India and abroad -- has embraced Arundathi Roy as a conscience-keeper to the nation, Ai is celebrated, by much of the overseas media and a section of liberal intelligentsia within China, as a conscientious objector who stands up to naked authoritarianism. But, like Roy, Ai also has more than his fair share of critics who claim that his borderline-compulsive projection of himself into the public space – and his repeated in-your-face flashing of his middle finger(literally!) at authorities -- perhaps makes for a black-and-white portrayal of China that is lacking in nuance.
The fact that Ai delights in shock-and-awe iconoclasm also draws extreme reactions, within China and outside: in June 1994, five years after the Tiananmen Square students’ protest ended in bloodshed, he photographed fellow artist Lu Qing (whom he later married) lifting up her skirt in front of the famous Mao Zedong portrait in Tiananmen Square. Some saw it as irreverential, others as symbolising New China.
But whereas Roy, for all the fulminations against her and the effort to have her arrested for treason, enjoys apparently limitless freedom of speech and political organisation, Ai is repeatedly reminded of the limits where such freedoms end in China.
In 2010, New Yorker’s China correspondent Evan Osnos, who profiled Ai Weiwei, answered questions about his interactions with (and his impressions of) Ai. Asked why Ai had not yet been jailed, Osnos responded: “…What happens to (Ai) ultimately will be the test of what he represents in China… On some level, there's a limit to what the government really worries about when it comes to a guy like Ai Weiwei, who's talking to a limited audience of people. He's talking to people who more or less already agree with him. That's not a concern for the government as it would be if he was a popular blockbuster filmmaker who's making things that millions and millions of people would see.”
“On the other hand, the population he's talking to is a very powerful population in the history of China. It's intellectuals, it's students, and it's people who take an interest in public affairs and the future of the country. So it's not a population that the government takes lightly.
Perhaps that may account for why the Chinese authorities, already unnerved by online calls for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China, have invited Ai Weiwei for “a cup of tea.”