The Party Goes On

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Update: On Tuesday, demolition crews flattened  the Shanghai studio of China's most famous contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei. Two months ago, Foreign Policy covered the farewell party the artist organized at the studio to call attention to the government's recent announcement of its impending destruction.

The new studio of China's most famous contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei, is located on the outskirts of Shanghai. Construction costs totaled about $1 million and it was completed earlier this year with the blessing of the local government. As Ai told The Guardian's Tania Branigan and Adam Gabbatt: "Two years ago a high official [from Shanghai] came to my studio [he has another workspace in Beijing] to ask me to build a studio in this newly developed cultural district in an agricultural area. I told him I wouldn't do it because I had no faith in government, but he somehow convinced me… Half a dozen artists were invited to build studios there because they wanted a cultural area." Yet, on Oct. 19, Ai, who is known for being critical of Beijing, received a notice from the local government that his studio was slated for demolition this fall, allegedly for violating building codes. "Ai's studio did not go through the application procedures, therefore, it is an illegal building," Chen Jie, director of the local urban construction department, told the state-run Global Times.

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Ai Weiwei, the son of dissident poet, Ai Qing, is well known both within and outside China. He is a co-designer of Beijing's iconic Bird's Nest Olympic stadium and his "Sunflower Seeds" exhibit is currently on display at the Tate Modern in London. On the one hand, authorities in Beijing take some measure of pride in the global reputation of a Chinese artist who still lives in mainland China, but he also has long had a fraught relationship with government censors for his criticism of the political system and restrictions on free speech.

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After receiving the demolition notice, Ai sent a message via Twitter inviting the general public to attend a party at his Shanghai studio on Nov. 7, before the structure was destroyed. Ai pledged to serve guests 10,000 river crabs. His menu choice was ironic -- the dish, "he xie" in Chinese, closely resembles the word for "harmonious." Government censors often cite the goal of creating a "harmonious society" as a reason for limiting speech, and the term "river crab" is often used mockingly to lambast restrictions on freedom of expression.

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On Nov. 5, Ai Weiwei was put under house arrest in Beijing. The timing seemed intended to prevent his attendance at the planned party at his Shanghai studio. As Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford reported, Ai explained events this way: "They [the authorities] came at half past midnight and told me they did not wish me to go to Shanghai… I said that I had already announced the party and that I could not not go." He was then informed by officials that he could not travel outside of Beijing. The party, however, went on. Here, dishes are set out in preparation for the night's dinner.

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Ai speculated as to the reason why the police had not shut the party down: "perhaps it is because Shanghai cares more about its international image than Beijing. When the Beijing police put me under house arrest, that put a lot of pressure on the Shanghai government. In the end, they must have decided not to make things any worse and shut it down because then it would have got a lot more attention in the foreign media. " Above, guests begin to gather at Ai's studio.

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While Ai remained under house arrest at home in Beijing, the event went on as planned. To accommodate the large turnout of out-of-town guests, Ai's studio offered free overnight accommodation. Travelers came from Changsha, Nanjing, and elsewhere. Interestingly, many of the estimated 500 attendees were not previously close friends of Ai, but fans or curious folks who had learned of the event online. At Ai's Shanghai studio, a staffer told state-run media that he believed "most participants [at Sunday's party] are Internet users who came on their own."

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The meal was simple and informal, reflecting Ai's ideas about making art and culture accessible. The event itself was not interrupted by police. Indeed, the authorities have appeared strikingly ambivalent as to how to handle Ai's wry protest. Attendees say the crowd sang songs and talked about what kind of society they hoped China might become. "China currently lacks the rule of law and I hope that we can build a society that is ruled by law," one young man told The Guardian: "This is what we need to do."

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"Hopefully [the police] will learn from this that they cannot just use this old way to deal with new conditions," Ai told The Guardian, while under house arrest in Beijing. "I think with the Internet you don't need to be there to communicate so well. I have spent all day talking to people there [online]."

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