Tea Leaf Nation
Ai Weiwei Doesn’t Need Anyone to Give Him Lego
The artist’s most recent publicity stunt merely fuels his unfair image within China as a self-promoting opportunist.
The noted Chinese artist and perennial dissident Ai Weiwei recently announced that Lego, a Denmark-based company, had refused his request to purchase more than a million of the tiny toy bricks for an Australian display of his work Trace, a collaborative endeavor with U.K.-based human rights group Amnesty International, that depicts political prisoners around the world in Lego portraits. Ai hit Twitter to rouse his 295,000-plus followers to rally against “censorship” and send him bricks, from which he says he’ll now make a new work.
Ai has termed the move not only “censorship,” but also “discrimination” from the toymaker. But Lego is following a long-standing, if arguably misguided, “no politics” policy that’s applied in the past to everything from a U.K. government campaign against Scottish independence to depictions of U.S. Supreme Court justices. The bricks are easily available through third-party orders.
Yet having stirred up the hornet’s nest, Ai then went on to wink at the buzzing swarm, retweeting a number of people, including me, who called out his marketing skills or, less circumspect, called bullshit on his claims of censorship. Ai has turned a minor inconvenience into a brilliant publicity stunt.
And that’s the problem with Ai. Most Chinese dissidents don’t get to do publicity stunts, especially ones mainly aimed at winning support for an exhibition in another country. They might stage dramatic protests to try and draw attention to a local cause, at considerable risk for themselves. But they’re not sustaining a career through it. “If he wasn’t a dissident,” a wry Chinese friend noted, “then who would go to his exhibitions?”
That’s unfair to Ai, arguably one of the few great creators to come out of the rush for Chinese art. But it’s a widespread perception in China, where Ai’s role as perpetual quote-generator for Western media and artistic provocateur has ended up making him a semi-licensed jester rather than an actual threat. Chinese state media is far more comfortable covering Ai than any other resister not because he’s dangerous, but because he’s useful.
And for the Western media, Ai has become a misleading archetype of dissent in China. There are dozens of stories on Ai every year in outlets ranging from Smithsonian magazine to Germany’s most popular weekly Die Zeit (My all-time favorite: “Arrested Chinese blackjack guru Ai Weiwei also an artist and dissident.”) He’s become the global face of resistance to Beijing, far better known than even imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. (I should note my personal and professional stakes on both sides of this. I copy-edit for the English edition of the nationalist and Party-backed Global Times, whose editorials have often gone after Ai Weiwei or his supporters. Then again, many of my friends are Western reporters who have covered Ai favorably; some are close to him personally. Not to mention that he sweetly signed my birthday card last year when asked.)
Ai has numerous virtues. He’s brave, he’s smart, he’s funny, he makes interesting art (and lousy heavy metal), and he supports the right causes. At personal risk, he’s chosen to stay in Beijing when he could have made a permanent home abroad long ago. By doing so, he has kept skin in the game rather than fading into irrelevance abroad.
He’s the most internationally famous example of a small group of celebrities, such as boyish rally car racer and online writer Han Han, who emerged during the relatively liberal years under former Chinese President Hu Jintao and whose reputation depended in part on their ability to court dissent while not overstepping the invisible and ever-shifting line between tolerated complaint and so-called “subversion” of state power. Ai has been able to be far more outspoken than most, protected by the legacy of his late father, a noted poet and supporter of the ruling Communist Party who was politically persecuted before being later “rehabilitated.” While the others, like Han, have been almost entirely cowed into silence in the shift to harsher policies under current Chinese President Xi Jinping, Ai’s still able to keep talking.
Ai fits the Western image of what a dissident is, based largely on the West’s fuzzy memory of Soviet bloc figures like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Václav Havel; an intelligent, all-purpose opponent of the state who’s also a talented artist. The same went for Liu Xiaobo, where the coverage of his Nobel Peace Prize strongly emphasized his work as a poet and essayist as an integral part of his dissidence.
But even in Soviet Russia, where writers enjoyed a particularly powerful cultural status, that was a misleading image. Far more resisters were miners, mothers, or ministers than artists of any stripe. Dissidents are often saintly figures, and, like the saints, that means they’re also often slightly mad. It takes an unusual type of personality to have the courage to keep going through the joblessness, harassment, beatings, slander, and threats that constitute the daily lot of people who openly resist the system in China.
Resisting the state also often needs an ideological or religious fuel that doesn’t fit neatly with Western liberalism, whether it’s a sincere belief in Communism or the fervor of evangelical Christianity. Solzhenitsyn’s fans in the West found it shocking when the post-Soviet figure turned out to be a Russian nationalist and something of an anti-Semite, but it came from the same steely conviction that fueled his work. Ai, on the other hand, is easy for Westerners to digest because his views hew closely to their own.
And Ai’s impishly rebellious image allows those who support him an easy thrill. When he literally gives the middle finger to Beijing, it’s exciting, especially for those who have to deal with the thick haze of everyday bullshit that permeates life in China. Playing along gives others the buzz of being rebels; backing Ai is the equivalent of wearing a death metal band’s T-shirt to high school. And with Chinese media strangled by increasing restrictions and Western reporters hamstrung, he’s also one of the only stories left in town. In a country where reporting means nervous, anonymous sources and official demands to fax questions that will then be ignored for months, Ai is one of the few people who gives good copy.
In sharp contrast to Ai, most resistance to state power in China falls into three categories: local, quiet, or imprisoned. There’s lots of localized or specific protest, whether about potentially hazardous paraxylene plants, unemployment, or religious persecution. There’s lots of quiet dissent, whether from academic economists questioning development policies or the steady work of journalists trying to do what they can to write the truth.
And, especially as Xi’s new order tightens the noose around the throat of China’s civil society, there are a lot of people in prison. Ai’s outspoken, international, and continuing resistance lies way outside these unfortunate norms, and the fact that it’s been able to keep going makes it thrilling. Ai himself has often tried to point supporters toward other critics of the system who lack his ability to carve out a safe zone. Rather than following up on these, though, the media keeps circling back to the endlessly colorful Ai himself.
But Ai’s role also inadvertently helps prop up support for the system, because he feeds into many Chinese people’s long-standing beliefs about dissidents. I’ve heard, many times, that dissidents are just looking to make trouble, that their goal is adoration from the West, not change in China, that they’re publicity hounds and self-seekers. Most of this is justification by people who are doing well under the system themselves, feel uncomfortable with those who challenge it, and so invent excuses as to why the persecution is the dissidents’ own fault. And when it comes to the majority of detractors, it’s nonsense. But when that mud gets thrown at Ai, some of it sticks. He is in fact well off, feted by the foreign media, and praised as much for his dissidence than his art. He does win attention, fame, and funding from the West for his statements.
Nobody who stands outside of the bubble of Chinese propaganda can doubt the real costs Ai has paid. He’s been harassed, followed, spied upon, had his passport confiscated (and recently returned), and at one point was detained for several months, where he sustained permanent damage to his health from a blow and was forced to watch video of another dissident being tortured.
But in all its darkness, that’s far better treatment than anyone else in China would get for opposing the party-state at such volume for so long. And so, ironically, party supporters end up pointing to Ai as an example of China’s ability to tolerate dissident voices, not suppress them. A clear, bleak cycle has thus formed: Ai says or does something, whether it’s putting a finger up to the authorities or throwing them a bone. The Western media then makes a story (or twelve) out of it. And state media responds with vitriolic criticism or, if something resembling praise is incoming, an occasional pat on the head. Everybody gets what they need, and nothing changes.