Ai Weiwei: How a Chinese Artist Uses the Internet To Protest

On: October 31, 2010
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About Erik van Bemmelen
I am a student of the New Media Master at the University of Amsterdam. My main academic interests are the new online business models around production, distribution and consumption of culture in general and music in particular. My goal is to make a living out of downloading music.


Reading an interview with the famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in the weekend magazine of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, I was instantly drawn to his faith in the democratizing power of the Internet. More than once Weiwei, who is probably best known for his work on the Olympic Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, stressed the importance of the Internet in trying to resist the practices of the Chinese government. Through the Internet it’s easier to raise awareness on an international level, but in China itself as well.

Weiwei is a friend of Liu Xiaobo, a fellow human rights activist who has won the Nobel Peace Prize this year – while being detained in prison in China for the very actions that got him the important award in the first place. He was one of the writers of Charter 08, a manifesto pleading for a democratic China, which was initially signed by more than 350 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists and by many thousands on the Internet in the following weeks. (An English version, translated by Perry Link, can be seen here.) It asks: “Where is China headed in the twenty-first century? Will it continue with “modernization” under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system?” Being one of the most important Chinese activists since the 1980s, Xiaobo has been imprisoned many times. Right now, he is locked up at an undisclosed location without official charges, but probably as a direct result of Charter 08, and he will be for another 10 years. Some of the other writers of the Charter 08 have recently commented on the Nobel Peace Prize, calling it a “major event in modern Chinese history”.

Weiwei calls the fact that Xiaobo won “a gift just as important as the Internet”. The government of China tightly controlles the media and it generally does not allow any points of criticism to be expressed in the media and press. So while we in the Western world might think the protests of Weiwei and others get a lot of attention in China, it’s rather the opposite. They are given no attention in the traditional media or are even silenced by the government, like Xiaobo. Weiwei thinks the reason he himself is not imprisoned only has to do with his international fame. The commotion and worldwide attention an arrest of Wei Wei would cause, would be more harmful to the Chinese government than letting him run free – for now at least. The Chinese media have been spreading false stories on Xiaobo, telling that he is a criminal and that the Nobel Peace Prize he has been awarded is an insult to China.

Weiwei has famously used the Internet to trace the identities of more than 5000 students who died on account of the earthquake in the province of Sichuan in 2008. The government tried to stop him from creating a scandal, so they arrested him and beat him. He now mainly uses his fame as an artist to raise awareness of the situation in China, using Twitter (in Chinese, although there’s a translated version) and his blog. At least, he tries. Many of his blogs are shut down by the Great Chinese Firewall but he is confident that his message will slip through the cracks. In fact, he names the Internet as the main reason Xaiobo got arrested: “You know why Liu Xaiobo and others have been arrested? Because of their ideas got spread very rapidly on the Internet. This has frightened [the government]”. Under the surface of the controlled state and its media, there’s a revolution brooding, sometimes showing itself on the Internet. Let’s all spread the message!

Also, there’s a supposedly great exposition of Weiwei at Tate Modern in London. It’s there until the 2nd of May, 2011. About the exposition: “Sunflower Seeds is made up of millions of small works, each apparently identical, but actually unique. However realistic they may seem, these life-sized sunflower seed husks are in fact intricately hand-crafted in porcelain. Porcelain is almost synonymous with China and, to make this work, Ai Weiwei has manipulated traditional methods of crafting what has historically been one of China’s most prized exports. Sunflower Seeds invites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today.

Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

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