Posts tagged: Sichuan earthquake

Just For Fun: Art Review – Ai Weiwei’s “According to What?”

Artist & Activist Ai Weiwei

Artist & Activist Ai Weiwei

For sure the best part of the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition of Ai Weiwei‘s (pronounced Eye Way-Way) retrospective – “According to What?” – is that it was able to obtain the six dioramas Ai made of his 81-day detention by Chinese authorities. The dioramas visually demonstrates the utter absurdity of the Chinese police state. This alone mandates that this exhibit not be missed.

But the second best part? That the Brooklyn Museum did not place Ai’s works in a vacuum. Instead, Ai’s exhibit is one of four fascinating exhibits concerning art and social activism. Any visit to Ai’s exhibit should be accompanied by a viewing of at least one of these other shows. If you get there before July 13, definitely check out “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” as a contrasting exhibit to Ai’s and as a powerful reminder of America’s own checkered past and unclear future concerning civil and human rights.

“According to What?” is not just a retrospective of Ai’s art but also an explanation of

Ai Photo of Police & Protestors at Washington Square Park, 1988

Ai Photo of Police & Protestors at Washington Square Park, 1988

his activism. One of the most revealing parts of the exhibition is Ai’s photographs from 1980s New York City, covering the decade when Ai lived in the city. Through Ai’s photographs, we see what he saw: constant protests in various city parks, face-to-face confrontation with the police, the beginnings of the AIDs crisis and its activism, the grit of 1980s New York City. When later on in the exhibit you watch a video of Ai challenging the Chinese police and demanding accountability, you can’t help but think back to the photos of bloody protesters in Tompkins Square Park and wonder if this is what influences Ai to be the agitator that he has become.

But Ai wasn’t always such an agitator. Unfortunately the exhibition gives only short shrift to his prior – and government-accepted – work. In overlooking this aspect of Ai’s career, the exhibit also fails to fully explain the spark that radicalized his art – the Sichuan earthquake. After an 8.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Sichuan province, Ai traveled to the region and saw the hundreds of shoddily-built schoolhouses that completely fell, killing the children in them. All the while surrounding government buildings remained standing. Seeing the thousands of children’s backpacks lying in the rubble and the fact that the government-controlled press was not acknowledging the “tofu-dreg construction,” Ai took matters into his own hands, undertaking a “Citizen’s Investigation” and uncovering the names of the 5,196 children killed.

The gallery with Ai's Sichuan earthqake remembrance art, including "Straight"

The gallery with Ai’s Sichuan earthqake remembrance art, including “Straight”

In “Sichuan Name List,” Ai lists the name, age, school and address of every single child killed.   It is the layout of this work – the 5,196 names line an entire wall of the gallery, from top of the ten foot wall to bottom – that forms the art work. Only in seeing this can one even begin to attempt to understand the enormity of the loss. The work is accompanied by “Remembrance” a three-and-a-half audio recording of strangers from around the world speaking the name of every single child that perished. Lying in the center of the gallery are the steel rebar from the shoddy construction – all of which have been straightened back to their original form.

Ai’s homage to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake is powerful. It is also the reason why Ai is so dangerous to the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”).   To maintain its power, the CCP needs to retain its monopoly on Chinese history. Since the founding of the People’s Republic, it is the CCP that writes the country’s history; not its people. Tiananmen? Never happened. Mao Zedong? Only 10% wrong. The Cultural Revolution? Not a descent into madness, just a little blip on the radar screen. Here, Ai – who is an influential figure since his father, Ai Qing, was a well-known and respected poet – is attempting to write the people’s history. It’s that attempt that the CCP sees as an assault on its rule.

Never Lonely! Friendly little guards are there and everywhere!

Never Lonely! Friendly little guards are there and everywhere!

But if you think that is overreacting, then check out the six half-life size dioramas that Ai made of his 81 day detention. In 2011, Ai was detained by the public security bureau allegedly on tax fraud charges although the general consensus is that it was the government’s failed attempt to silence his activism. Ai designed each five-foot tall diorama with a window where the viewer can look in and see Ai in his room. In the first room, things don’t look so bad. It looks more like a hotel room than a jail cell. But as you progress and look into each scene, you begin to realize the absurdity of what is going on here. Two guards are with Ai at every moment, watching him. As he eats, as he sleeps, even when he showers. The guards are there, standing over him, watching his every move. Is this jolly, chubby man really that dangerous?

With so much of Ai’s art involving his interaction with the authorities, “According to What?” raises the question – has social activism become Ai’s art? And is this good for either: should activism merely be theater; should art be so much protest? By situating “According to What?” with other activist art, the Brooklyn Museum has largely answered those questions – art does not exist in a vacuum nor should we want it to.

Philip Guston's City Limits (1969), part of BK Museum's Witness Exhibit

Philip Guston’s City Limits (1969), part of BK Museum’s Witness Exhibit

For Americans, viewing “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” will demonstrate that art and activism go hand-and-hand and that we can and should respect the artist for both. It will also serve as an emotional reminder of our own dirty little past. But in the end, it will make you wonder – while these tactics worked in 1960s America, a largely democratic society, will they also work in Ai’s authoritarian China? One hopes that Ai’s art is not in vain, but, as China’s new regime even more violently cracks down on any purported challenge to its rule, only the future can tell.

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Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” is only on view at the Brooklyn Museum until July 13, 2014. “According to What?” is on view until August 10, 2014. This will be the exhibit’s final stop on its international tour. While entrance to the Brooklyn Museum is a suggested donation of $12, “According to What?” is a required $15 ticket (which includes price of general admission). Note that the dioramas of Ai’s detention are on the first floor before purchasing tickets and thus can be viewed for free.

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

Xu Zhiyong and What his Detention Means for Rule of Law in China

By , August 17, 2009

Originally posted on the Huffington Post

Just before dawn on July 29, 2009, the Beijing police apprehended leading Chinese public interest lawyer, Xu Zhiyong, allegedly to question him about possible tax evasion.  He has not been heard from since.  In an increasingly conservative political environment in China, Mr. Xu’s detention is far from an anomaly.  Many speculate that the Chinese government’s recent crackdown on public interest lawyers is merely a part of the preparations for the 60th

Xu Zhiyong; Photo by Shizhao

Xu Zhiyong; Photo by Shizhao

Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China this fall.  But in looking beneath the surface of the government’s recent actions, a different narrative emerges.

The apprehension of Mr. Xu, the forced closure of his legal assistance organization, Gongmeng (in English the Open Constitution Initiative), the investigation of Yi Ren Ping, a non-profit law center that assists AIDS and hepatitis patients with anti-discrimination actions, the recent disbarment of over 20 public interest lawyers, the professional “exile” of a leading legal scholar and outspoken critic to a remote region of China, all of these actions paint the picture of a government that has become increasingly more alarmed by a more vocal and organized group of lawyers.  The government, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which ultimately controls all governmental bodies, has begun to view the development of these non-profit lawyers and legal reform as a threat to its authority and to the one-party rule of the CCP.  Recent governmental assaults on the public interest law field are not just a one-off affair.  Rather, they show a CCP not looking to embrace the “rule of law,” but instead seeking to contain it.

Development of Rule of Law in China from the US & Chinese Perspectives

Both China and the U.S. agree that greater rule of law in China is needed and can benefit China.  Virtually every conference between the two nations mentions the need for rule of law development. But what is never articulated is what each means by “rule of law.”  Many Western scholars claim that rule of law is value-neutral; it is merely a system where laws are enforced in a transparent manner by an independent judiciary and that rule of law can exist regardless of the political system of the country.

And while this is likely true, the U.S. government still largely views rule of law within the rubric of democracy; as the rule of law develops so does democracy and greater protection for human rights.  Of the $27 million the government appropriated to rule of law projects in China in 2008, $15 million were administered by the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and another $2 million was designated for non-State Department rule of law projects (see CSR report, p. 2).

China, however, takes a different perspective.  While seeing the benefits of rule of law in terms of economic development, international acceptance and respect, and the ability for the central government to have greater control over the provinces, China has largely limited rule of law to the economic sphere and at times, a few other select areas.  If a case involves a politically sensitive issue, involves an organized group of plaintiffs, or could unmask government malfeasance, the government will either not allow a case to proceed or will determine the ultimate outcome.

Even with this limited development toward legal reform, many U.S. policymakers believe that rule of law will continue to spread and permeate lawyers’, judges’ and society’s consciousness.  This Trojan horse strategy assumes that legal reform in the economic sphere will inevitably spread to all areas of the law and to Chinese civil society.  Government will be held more accountable to the people, laws will be administered transparently and all rights, political, economic and social, will be able to be vindicated.  But proponents of this theory offer little to no evidence as to why.  Why is this inevitable? Why can’t China succeed in limiting legal reform to the economic sphere?  Why can’t rule of law be contained?

In other words, what if China is the black swan in the whole rule of law theory?

Emergence of a More Conservative Legal Ideology in China

Theory of the Three Supremes

The detention of Xu Zhiyong comes amid an increasing conservative political environment in China, at least in terms of legal reform.  In December 2007, President Hu Jintao attempted to reassert the importance of the CCP in legal interpretation and reform by announcing his theory of  “The Three Supremes:” judges and prosecutors should “always regard as supreme the Party’s cause, the people’s interest, and the Constitution and laws.”   Although initially unclear if the Three Supremes were listed in hierarchical order, a recent announcement in July 2009 by a justice minister confirmed the hierarchical nature of the Three Supremes and the preeminence of the CCP when he called upon lawyers to “above all obey the Communist Party and help foster a harmonious society.”

Wang Shengjun, President of the Supreme People's Court

Wang Shengjun, President of the Supreme People's Court

The Three Supremes is not just rhetoric.  In March 2008, the National People’s Congress named Wang Shengjun, a Party insider without any legal training, as head of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), replacing reform-minded and trained lawyer Xiao Yang.  Upon taking his position Wang has worked ardently to have the courts conform to the Three Supremes.

A More Organized Public Interest Law Movement

While the government expounds the Three Supremes and imposes this conservative ideology on the legal system, public interest lawyers have become increasingly organized and vocal.  In August 2008, a group of 35 public interest lawyers in Beijing issued an internet appeal that requested that the government-controlled Beijing Lawyers’ Association (BLA) to conduct free and direct elections of governing officials of the BLA.  In December 2008, human rights activists, many of whom are lawyers, signed Charter 08, a petition to the Chinese government calling for greater human rights, the end of one-party rule and an independent legal system.  In addition, many of the non-profit lawyers, including Xu Zhiyong, have represented plaintiffs in politically sensitive cases, including cases pertaining to the Sichuan earthquake and the melamine milk scandal.  Last year, Xu’s organization issued a report blaming Chinese policies in Tibet for the 2008 uprising in that region.

China’s Recent Response

Under the doctrine of the Three Supremes, China has not responded kindly to these public interest lawyers.  Although the BLA slightly altered its voting rules by allowing for the direct election of representatives who then in-turn elected the governing officials, in February 2009, the local Judicial Bureau sought its revenge.  After withholding a license from Li Subin, one of the advocates of the new voting procedures at the BLA, the Bureau issued an order for Yitong Law Firm, which employed Li, to shut down for six months for permitting a non-licensed attorney to practice law.

Liu Xiaobo, a leading human rights activist in China and signatory to Charter 08 was detained by police just hours before the publication of Charter 08.  He remains in police custody.  He Weifang, a well-known law scholar at the prestigious Peking University has been sent into professional exile and now teaches law in China’s most western region, Xinjiang.

Xu Zhiyong has faced a similar fate.  In May 2009, tax authorities began to investigate Xu’s non-profit legal center, Gongmeng.  On July 14, the Beijing office of the National Tax Bureau and the Beijing Local Tax Bureau each issued a notice to Gongmeng for non-payment of taxes on funds donated by Yale University and levied the maximum penalty of five-times the amount owed, or $208,000.  On July 17, twenty officials from the Beijing Office of Civil Affairs barged into the Gongmeng offices, confiscating all materials including computers, case files, and furniture, and shut down Gongmeng.  On July 29, Xu was apprehended by police for suspicion of tax evasion; he remains in custody.

In a Kafkaesque turn of events, on August 5, after raising at least some funds to pay its fine, the Beijing Public Security Bureau froze all of Gongmeng’s accounts.  On August 10, in an attempt to discuss this matter with tax officials at the Beijing Local Tax Bureau and the National Tax Bureau, Gongmeng officials were escorted out.   Authorities have informed Gongmeng that their recently filed paperwork is invalid because it does not contain the signature of Gongmeng’s legal representative, Xu Zhiyong. As this back-and-forth continues, Xu Zhiyong remains in police custody and the fine of $208,000 accrues daily compounded interest of 3%.

Also on July 29, officials from Beijing Cultural Market Administrative Enforcement Unit inspected the offices of Yi Ren

Click on image to open a PDF version of the Timeline of Events

Click on image to open a PDF version of the Timeline of Events

Ping, a non-profit organization that files anti-discrimination lawsuits on behalf of people AIDS or hepatitis.  Claiming that their search was being conducted under the Measures to Manage Internal Material Publications, a law that was repealed in 2001, the officials seized 90 copies of Yi Ren Ping’s newsletter.

China’s Containment of Rule of Law

The Chinese Communist Party is unified by one principle – to remain in power.  Any organized effort, even if within the confines of the law, will be viewed as a threat to the CCP’s authority.  In recent months, Chinese public interest lawyers have been effectively organizing themselves, especially through the internet, to challenge the current system.  However, these lawyers are far from what the rest of the world would deem radical.  They are merely using the laws passed by the National People’s Congress to protect people, especially those in disadvantaged groups like rural parents in Sichuan or people with AIDS.  They are not looking to overturn underlying constitutional principles; they just want to enforce the law as written.

Even though these lawyers work within the system to improve Chinese society in a way that the law permits, as soon as they amass sufficient numbers, in the minds of the CCP, they are no longer operating within the legal system, but within the political one.  In these situations, the CCP will abandon the legal system in favor of the political one.

But this is not to say that rule of law has not taken hold in China.  Today, foreign corporations usually receive a fair hearing before arbitration commissions and the majority of cases handled by the courts are ordinary cases that involve little to no Party interference.  There has been a marked increase in the professionalism of many judges and lawyers, and there is a sincere effort by many in the profession to develop greater rule of law.

However, those few cases that involve large groups of people or involve issues sensitive to the CCP, often do not receive the same transparent and independent judgment.  In these situations, the outcome is ultimately determined by the CCP.

Thus far, China has been successful at confining rule of law development to non-political cases.  The actions that have been taken against public interest lawyers in the past two years show China’s commitment to maintaining this separation.  The government’s harassment and detention of public interest lawyers is intended to have a chilling effect on the profession.  The low numbers of lawyers who seek a career in the public interest can be seen as a reflection of this impact.

But can China succeed in containing rule of law to certain areas?  Many look to Taiwan and South Korea as an example of the inevitability of legal reform and democracy in an East Asian society.  Both were under authoritarian regimes but eventually developed vibrant legal systems.  However, China is in a very different place.  Taiwan and South Korea were still dependent on the U.S. for trade and for military protection, and thus heavily influenced by the U.S.  China, on the other hand, has become an economic and military powerhouse, beholden to few other nations.  One of those countries is, of course, the United States, but China has gained significant leverage in this bilateral relationship by stocking up over $700 billion in US treasury bonds. All the while, it has been able to develop its economy while limiting legal development in the political and human rights spheres.  Its continued rise only solidifies the need for this separation in the minds of the CCP leadership.

China’s future remains uncertain and only time will tell if rule of law does in fact permeate other areas of Chinese society.  However, at this juncture, where China has become an important global power, it is important for U.S. policymakers to re-evaluate their assumptions of the rule of law landscape in China; and to ask themselves, what if China is successful in containing rule of law to certain segments?  Can the U.S. live with that reality?  Will it have a choice?

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