German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle with Liu Yandong, State Councillor of Culture for the People’s Republic of China, at Friday’s opening of “The Art of the Enlightenment,” the major German loan show at the National Museum of China, Beijing
Photo: Frank Barbian © Staatliche Museen, Berlin
[More on this story, here and here.]
Guido Westerwelle has done the right thing.
Last night, I pointed out the stark contrast in Beijing between the cultural pomp and ceremony at Friday’s opening of The Art of Enlightenment exhibition and the
sordid scene two days later at the airport, where dissident artist Ai Weiwei was detained; and at the artist’s studio, where laptops and computer hard drives were seized and staff members (as well Ai’s wife) were hauled into a police station for questioning.
I had also noted that German officials, who attended the exhibition opening and who last year signed an agreement with China (which included the mounting of the year-long blockbuster show), might be uniquely well situated to advocate on Ai’s behalf
Now this has happened.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on
Monday demanded the release of Ai Weiwei, after the Chinese artist and
rights activist was prevented by Chinese police from boarding a flight
to Hong Kong.
“I appeal to the Chinese government to urgently
provide clarification, and I expect Ai Weiwei to be released
immediately,” Westerwelle said in a statement issued by the Foreign
Hillary Clinton, do you copy?
Westerwelle this past weekend had opened the mega-show of works loaned by three German museums to the National Museum of China, Beijing.
The NY Times today published a front-page story about that huge, extensively renovated museum on the east side of Tiananmen Square, which also contains new exhibitions about China’s history (with the sensitive parts expurgated).
National Museum of China, as seen by me last October
Near the end of the Times piece, reporter Ian Johnson points out the disconnect between the human-rights message of the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment (the subject of the German loan show) and China’s de facto ban on “overt mention of the political ideas.”
“It’s an art exhibit and not a political show,” Mr. [Michael] Eissenhauer [director, State Museums of Berlin] said.
That means themes of individuality or rights will be alluded to in
paintings or furniture but not explicitly discussed.
Maybe the art itself can successfully make its own point.
The Associated Press this morning updated the story of Ai’s continued disappearance, interviewing his wife, who had been detained and questioned yesterday:
“There is no news of him so far,” said Ai’s wife, Lu Qing. Lu said
she was interrogated Sunday night by Beijing city police, who searched
the couple’s home and took away items, including documents, computers
and hard drives.
“They asked me about Ai Weiwei’s work and the
articles he posted online,” Lu told The Associated Press. “I told them
that everything that Ai did was very public, and if they wanted to know
his opinions and work they could just look at the Internet.”
She said a group of office employees who were detained when Ai’s studio was searched had been released.
If Ai is not likewise promptly released in good condition, Chinese officials will have given their country’s human rights activists a galvanizing martyr and a powerful rallying cry.
This is not an outcome that anyone should desire.
UPDATE: Agence France-Presse has further information on the international reponse. France and Austria have also been heard from.
UPDATE 2: Here she is! Agence France-Presse now reports that U.S. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner intoned:
The detention of artist and activist Ai Weiwei is inconsistent with the fundamental freedom and human rights of all Chinese citizens. We urge the Chinese government to release him immediately.