Trying to interpret the underlying meaning of Ai Weiwei‘s enigmatic and sometimes contradictory pronouncements since he traveled to Germany from China is like trying to decipher the cryptic pronouncement inside a fortune cookie. The more Ai Weiwei speaks to Western media, the more people struggle to interpret his ambiguous words.
Today he told Noah Barkin of Reuters that the timing of his possible return to China “depends on how long the West will allow me to stay here, really. Maybe they will throw me out very fast and I will have to go back. Maybe I will have to have my exile in China!”
My guess is that now that he’s left his native land for an indeterminate period, Ai will become an equal-opportunity provocateur, with threats to human rights in Western societies becoming new grist for his mill. This international focus was already apparent in his 2014 Alcatraz installation, which put Edward Snowden on a par with such celebrated former prisoners or exiles of conscience as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, not to mention China’s Liu Xiaobo, who was in prison when awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
More recently, the Art of Dissent film by Laura Poitras (of Citizen Four fame), documented “Panda-to-Panda,” a collaborative art project commissioned by New York’s Rhizome and New Museum, in which Ai and WikiLeaks/Tor Project activist Jacob Appelbaum. They stuffed 20 toy pandas with shredded Edward Snowden documents and an SD card backing up those previously published documents, for international distribution to human rights activists (i.e., panda contraband?).
Perhaps Great Britain had originally limited the length of Ai’s visa to 20 days (before granting the requested six months after public outcry), because its officials understood full well his subversive proclivities.
Ai (or perhaps his assistants) honored my previous post by retweeting my Twitter link to it, so let me expand on my analysis: My takeaway from his recent comments is that Ai’s understanding of the history and politics of repressive regimes has much in common with that of legendary Cornell University history professor Walter LaFeber: In his valedictory address (pp. 25-26) on the occasion of his retirement, LaFeber provocatively declared that “democracy doesn’t travel well,” particularly when it comes to countries (like China) that have no experience with it and are inhabited by deeply hostile factions that could easily erupt into chaos.
Chinese government crackdowns at the time when Ai Weiwei was held in custody arose in part from the Chinese government’s fear of a possible “Jasmine Revolution,” inspired by the Arab Spring (which, as we now know, did not end well). In comments during his most revealing interview with a Western journalist to date (with Joerg Haentzschel of Süddeutsche Zeitung), Ai expressed an understanding similar to LaFeber’s:
The social and political structure in China is quite fragile. If they lose some ground, everything might collapse. There is no established modern social structure in China. There is no individualism, no freedom of speech, no personal freedom….It’s the emperor and the rest. It’s still like that….
The state…can’t allow different opinions. They can’t even allow the potential that somewhere a new power is emerging….
There are a lot of very human and smart people in the government….They can not afford to make a change. If they would, they would have to change everything.
But I also have to be careful. It’s easy to destroy something. But you can’t be sure that you get something better after that.
His disappointed supporters want Ai to play the part of uncompromising ideologue. But his political wisdom, arrived at through hard experience, is more sophisticated and complex than that of his outraged adherents.
UPDATE: Ai (or his assistants) almost immediately retweeted this:
— Lee Rosenbaum (@CultureGrrl) August 13, 2015