I’m all in favor of petitions and protests calling attention to China’s deplorable detention of dissident artist Ai Weiwei. But international pressure by concerned citizens isn’t going to win his release. As with jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government strongly decries foreign intervention on behalf of those who are officially regarded as “criminals.”
The only pressure that might have some real impact is forceful action (not merely statements) by national governments at the highest level. The key quote in author Salman Rushdie‘s Op-Ed piece in today’s NY Times is this:
The disappearance [of Ai] is made worse by reports [my link, not Rushdie’s] that Mr. Ai has started to “confess.” His release is a matter of extreme urgency and the governments of the free world have a clear duty in this matter [emphasis added].
Some German officials, at least, seems to take this duty seriously. Dpa (Deutsche Presse-Agentur) today reports:
Various German politicians have condemned his disappearance in public and in letters to the Chinese authorities, while others have called for the prestigious exhibition of German art in the Beijing National Museum to be closed.
A debate over what to do will be held on April 26, with politicians and culture administrators taking part. The German Cultural Council has already called for the exhibition to be reconsidered.
What’s more, Berlin’s University of the Arts today offered a guest professorship to Ai. As I’ve previously stated (scroll down), the U.S. should offer asylum to Ai and his family.
I may have been the first journalist to point out the stark contrast between Ai’s detention and the humanistic subtext of works in the current Art of Enlightenment megashow of loans from three German museums to Beijing’s National Museum of China.
Now the International Herald Tribune has published Didi Kirsten Tatlow‘s article, which states:
The German organizers of the show, “The Art of the Enlightenment,” savored the irony [of the disconnect between Ai’s plight and the message embodied in the art]. “This is why the exhibition is so important: Precisely because of this,” said Martin Roth, director of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, referring to the tension.
“Great, isn’t it?” said Michael Eissenhauer, director of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, of the show’s arrival at this moment in China’s history.
Actually, Michael, it’s not so great. Eissenhauer had previously told the NY Times:
It’s an art exhibit and not a political show.
That means themes of individuality or rights will be alluded to in
paintings or furniture but not explicitly discussed.
It’s time for cultural institutions to stop allowing totalitarian regimes to edit informed scholarship to conform with the party line (which also happened, I have argued, on the Metropolitan Museum’s home turf, with its recent Yuan Dynasty show). If curators can’t exercise appropriate control over the interpretation of their exhibitions—in catalogues, multimedia and wall text—they should decline to debase their expertise and withdraw from the project.
Speaking of attacks on free expression, the online petition calling for Ai’s release was recently hacked by someone operating from a Chinese Internet address. It was shut down, Mark Lee of Bloomberg reported earlier today. However, the petition appears to be back up and very much running—some 94,700 signatories and still counting, at this writing. You must sign it! (I did.)
In another bit of “good” news, Tania Branigan of the British Guardian (who has been doing a heroic job of pursuing this story from Beijing) reports that Ai’s lawyer “has re-emerged after a five-day disappearance, which began shortly after he posted a microblog message saying he was being followed.
Liu Xiaoyuan tweeted to say he was back in Beijing and told the Guardian he was fine but did not want to give any more details of what had happened.”
A vow of silence must have been extracted. Or maybe lawyer Liu simply knows what’s good for him (and, we can only hope, also for Ai).