Posts tagged: dissident

Book Review: Ian Buruma’s Bad Elements – Chinese Rebels From LA to Beijing

By , October 17, 2013

You can’t really be a dissident in an authoritarian regime without being a difficult character. These are individuals who for some reason – call it bravery, call it madness, call it no other choice – feel the need to speak out knowing, either consciously or not, that their cause is likely futile and the full force of the authoritarian regime will come down on them like a ton of bricks.  As a result, their life often becomes their cause.  What happens to these characters when things get so bad that they are forced to flee their country?  What happens to their causes?

These questions rose again this past June when Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident who escaped his illegal house detention in 2012 and made it to the U.S., caused a stir in the media about his departure from NYU.   But answering these questions – or at least attempting to – isn’t untraveled ground as one China scholar pointed out in the wake of Chen’s NYU exodus.  Back in 2001, Ian Buruma, a Dutch China-hand and journalist, published Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing and this past summer seemed an appropriate time to pick up the book and read it.

Buruma’s Bad Elements begins by looking at the Chinese dissidents – starting with China’s 1978 Democracy Wall Movement through the 1989

Chai Ling during the Tiananmen Protests

Chai Ling during the Tiananmen Protests

Tiananmen student activists – living a new life in the United States.  His survey from Wei Jingsheng to Wang Dan and Chai Ling shows a group of people out of sorts in their adopted land.  Without access to China, most have given up their cause.  Chai Ling, the famous female student leader of the Tiananmen protests is now a successful businesswoman with a Harvard Business School MBA.  Same is true of her former Tiananmen colleague Li Lu.  He now runs an investment company in New York.  Many of the other student leaders just seem lost and lonely.

The pre-Tiananmen/post-Cultural Revolution Chinese exiled in America do not fare any better.  Separated from their cause, most have failed to figure out how to remain relevant to the mission back home.  Fang Lizhi‘s wife, Li Shuxian, probably expressed the exiled dissident’s predicament best when she told Buruma “[n]ow I am finally free to talk, but there is no one for me to talk to.”  Even amongst the exiled dissident community itself, there is little conversation for as Buruma recounts, the splits within the community are cavernous with some dissidents refusing to be in the same room as others.  One would think the bonds within the community would be stronger, but as Buruma insightfully details, the personality traits that allows one to become a dissident are not those that allow them to create strong bonds with others.  But even in honestly observing the exiled dissidents, Buruma never loses respect for them, reminding the reader that these people had the courage to speak up and that their suffering is likely incomprehensible to anyone else.  These individuals carry the battle scars of seeking democracy in a dictatorship and Buruma is always cognizant of this fact.

Modern day Singapore; what Buruma refers to as "Disneyland with capital punishment"

Modern day Singapore; what Buruma refers to as “Disneyland with capital punishment”

But Bad Elements most fascinating aspect is Buruma’s attempt to breakdown “the Chinese Myth,” a key tenant of which is that the Chinese are just not made for or currently prepared for democracy; some form of an authoritarian rule is necessary.

Buruma begins this journey to deconstruct this myth in Singapore, a Chinese-based society where the post-colonial government took and maintained power in the most vicious of ways.  For those who have never been to Singapore or know little of the details of its history, this chapter is a must read.  Singapore is a scary society that holds tight to the belief that this type of rule is necessary in a “Confucian” and “Asian-valued” society.  But even with such pressure to conform and unfathomable methods of torture, there are still those in Singapore who choose to dissent.  Their very existence in Singapore demonstrates that the idea that democracy is too alien a notion for the Chinese is nonsense.

The experiences of Taiwan and Hong Kong further demonstrates that the Chinese can have democracy, with Taiwan offering the best hope that democracy can succeed in a Chinese society.  While Taiwanese democracy is often punctuated with physical assaults within parliament, as Buruma shows, after a period of abusive rule, it has become a rather thriving and real democracy.  Hong Kong is similar except that its reversion back to the Mainland and the change in leadership to more Mainland, business-focused executives threatens that democracy.  In fact, in Hong Kong, the Chinese myth is beginning to reassert itself, with some prominent leaders stating that perhaps the Chinese people cannot handle full democracy.

Buruma ends his journey of destroying the Chinese myth by visiting the Mainland where shockingly, the belief in the need for a strong

Beijing cab driver looking for democracy

Beijing cab driver looking for democracy

government is not just prevalent amongst China’s intellectuals (who usually are the dissidents), but is a strongly held.  It is Buruma’s cab driver who most cogently expresses the desire for democracy, demonstrating that while the intellectual class believes China’s masses are not ready for democracy, those masses sure think they are.

Although Bad Elements is 12 years old, it is certainly not dated and raises issues that are still pertinent.  Twelve years later, the Chinese Myth is still very much alive and not just among the Chinese; at times Western businesses prefer to turn a blind eye to the Chinese government’s choice of leadership and instead are easily lulled by the belief of the Chinese Myth.

Buruma believes that democracy is inevitable in China and that it must be brought more quickly than the current (as of 2001) intellectuals appear to want.  Even as early as 2001, the Mainland intellectuals, perhaps reminded of what happened in Tiananmen Square, sought to more gradually change China.

But one wonders, who is Buruma – or any non-Chinese – to say that this approach is wrong?  Only the Chinese themselves can find their path.

Xu Zhiyong, a more gradual reformer finds himself in and out of jail

Xu Zhiyong, a more gradual reformer finds himself in and out of jail

This theory of gradual reform within the system has only gotten stronger in the past twelve years, with current activists like Xu Zhiyong seeking to work within the system.

Unfortunately, the past four years have shown that perhaps Buruma was right to feel frustrated – the Chinese government has also crackdown

harshly on this set of reform-minded activists.  Buruma’s suggestion twelve years ago – that the “social stability” which the Chinese government and the intellectuals desire – can never be achieved where a people is ruled by an authoritarian regime – rings more true today than ever before.

Another prescient aspect of Bad Elements is Buruma’s observation that many of the dissidents, those in the US, Singapore, Tawain, Hong Kong and even China, are Christians.  This is an occurrence that has only increased over time.  Most of today’s Mainland activist profess the Christian faith.  Buruma speculates that Christianity is prevalent among Chinese dissidents as it replaces one religion – Maoism and the Party – with another.  It’s unclear if that is the reason or if the reason is more because many of the dissidents see Christian values (at least the ones that make it to China) are akin to the rights and democracy which they seek.

Chai Ling today (to the left), working with her group "All Girls Allowed"

Chai Ling today (to the left), working with her group “All Girls Allowed”

But there are aspects of Bad Elements that do show their age, mostly about the exile community.  Although slightly dismissive of Chai Ling in Bad Elements, she has re-engaged with China.  In 2010, Chai founded “All Girls Allowed,” a Christian-influenced non-profit that seeks to eliminate the injustices associated with the one-child policy in China.  Similarly, Xiao Qiang who is give short shrift in the book, has become an important force in communicating the stories of dissent from the Mainland through his website China Digital Times.  Xiao remains extremely relevant to China’s reform movement.  And that’s the aspect of the book that Buruma could not have fathomed at the time – the rise of the internet.  The internet certainly shapes the role of today’s exile differently than those of years past and perhaps allows the dissident community to continue their connections with activists on the Mainland.

Rating: ★★★½☆ — as a result of certain aspects of the book being outdated (which is too be expected from a 12 year old book about contemporary China)

Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage Books 2001), 341 pages.

Movie Review – Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

By , April 21, 2013

Ai Weiwei with his Tate Modern art installation “Sunflower Seeds”

For the past few years, Ai Weiwei (pronounced “I Wayway”) – Chinese artist turned dissident turned heavy metal singer – has occupied the Western consciousness as the voice of China’s activist community.  A larger than life personality and an adept producer and user of social media, Ai is well known to the pages of the New York Times, Time Magazine, and other Western media outlets.

But is he truly the voice of the Chinese dissident community?  Or just branding himself for success?  Is he even an artist?

Alison Klayman’s provocative documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, doesn’t precisely answer those questions. Instead the movie displays the humanity of the man behind the brand and perfectly captures the oppressiveness and absurdity of the Chinese government’s clamp down on any form of effective dissent.  That approach provides for a compelling documentary that both attempts to explain a complicated man and an even more complicated country.

When Klayman first began filming Ai Weiwei, she did not intend to create a film that adeptly portrays China’s fear of any form of dissent.  Instead, she was filming a Chinese artist whose star was on the rise after assisting with the design of Beijing’s iconic Olympic stadium, the Bird’s Nest.

But soon after she began filming, a monumental earthquake hit Sichuan, China, killing over 70,000, many whom were children attending classes

Parents at the Mianzhu School, with children’s backpacks still sprawled on the ground

at schools that it turns out were shoddily built.  The unnecessary deaths of these children and the fact that the Chinese government failed to investigate the causes or even reveal the exact number of children killed, was a life-changing moment for Ai, which Klayman skillfully portrays in the documentary.

In December 2008, Ai begins his single-minded quest to provide transparency to this tragedy.  Through a series of trips to Sichuan, Ai interviews various families to learn the names of the children killed.  In the process he creates a network of volunteers who assist him in this endeavor.  Ai’s work culminates in a moving documentary of his own “So Sorry” which exposes the shoddy construction of school buildings and the subsequent government cover up.

On the first anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, Ai goes online, publishing the names of these children.  Eventually, he organizes an online campaign where individuals across China can call in and recite one of the children’s names.  The ultimate product is perhaps the most subversive of Ai’s art – it is not just a tribute to the children lost; it is a wake-up call to the Chinese government that it is more than just Ai that wants greater transparency about the Sichuan earthquake; there is a whole bunch of people dissatisfied.

Activists protest the 5 year sentence for Sichuan earthquake activist, Tan Zuoren

Not surprisingly, the Chinese government does not take kindly to Ai’s investigation and call to arms.  He has done the two things that scare the Chinese Communist Party the most – he has been able to effectively galvanize and organize a large swath of the Chinese public nationally and he has been able to subvert the firewalls and use social media to its most.  When he is in Sichuan, he is beaten and prevented from testifying at the trial of earthquake activist, Tan Zuoren; he is followed by local police who create more a scene in trying to “disperse” Ai than if they had left him alone; the Shanghai government – without any trial or hearing – tears down his studio (which they had invited him to build only two years previously); and he is eventually arrested by the Beijing police, kept in an unknown place without access to family, for over 60 days.

All of these actions demonstrate the absurdity by which the Chinese government deals with its people, especially those who seek to hold the government accountable.  Some might refer to this as dissent, but as Ai’s Sichuan earthquake online campaign demonstrates, and later on the “demolition party” he has at his Shanghai studio, it isn’t really dissent when so many ordinary Chinese people are in agreement with him and support him.

Klayman also spends time interviewing Ai about his childhood which, although Ai shortchanges its influence, must have had some impact on his current world view.  Fortunately, Klayman spends some time developing this part of Ai’s story.  Ai’s father – Ai Qing – was a famous revolutionary poet and early communist supporter, joining the Chinese Communist Party and partaking in its historic “Long March.”

But like many intellectuals in the late 1950s, Ai Qing soon felt the weight of the Chinese Communist Party’s Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957).  With his new “dissident” label, Ai Qing and his family – including the one-year old Ai Weiwei – were banished to China’s far western province of Xinjiang.  There the Ai family would remain for 19 years.  As Ai Weiwei recounts in his interview, his once illustrious, revolutionary father was forced to clean toilets.  During China’s Cultural Revolution, Ai Qing became his city’s enemy number one and subject to repeated abuse at the hands of the Red Guards.

You can’t help but draw conclusions that Ai Weiwei’s current questioning of authority is a result of what must have been horrible childhood experiences.  Which makes you wonder – what about all the other children of victims of the Cultural Revolution?  Ai is public in his dissatisfaction but you can’t help but think that his emotions must be shared by a large number of China’s “Lost Generation.”

Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is amazing precisely because it never does answer the questions which started this post – does Ai speak for

Guess what Ai Weiwei is telling the Chinese government?

the Chinese people or is he merely a brand.  The movie leaves you confident with the fact that it doesn’t matter.  That this man, and only this man, should be judged on his actions alone, and his actions thus far are sincere and heroic.  By the end of the film, you can’t help but like the guy and cheer him on as he single-handily antagonize the Chinese state in order to have some accountability of the Chinese government.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is both uplifting and scary as Klayman perfectly captures a slice of contemporary China that at times is too quickly described: the cat-and-mouse game between the activists and the Chinese government, that often has serious and dangerous repercussions for the former.   As Ai continues to needle the Chinese government, adeptly using social media to galvanize more ordinary Chinese, what will the Chinese government’s reaction be?  He’s already been detained once.  What else can they do?  Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry doesn’t answer those questions because it can’t; only the Chinese government can provide the answer.

Rating: ★★★★★

Director Alison Klayman is currently touring the U.S. with Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.  Check out her website to see if she will be showing the film near you.  You can also request a screening by emailing screenings@aiweiweineversorry.com or purchase the movie on Amazon: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

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