Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei? – News Story of the Week

This week Frontline aired an in-depth look at Chinese artist/dissident (or perhaps  dissident/artist) Ai Weiwei. The full episode entitled “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei” is available online here along with a profile of his online activism here.

If you aren’t familiar with Ai Weiwei, it’s time for your formal introduction.

He designed this for starters

Ai Weiwei first caught my eye a few years ago when he championed a movement for a complete name list of those who died in the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008. It is believed the gov’t set an “official” number of causalities from the earthquake very shortly after the event, and never revised the number.

Thousands of children died in school buildings that had been poorly constructed (Ai Weiwei estimates more than 5,000). These buildings collapsed because they were built with inferior materials in order to allow large amounts of graft.

This used to be a school

Another activist was arrested and sentenced to 5 years for subverting state power when he released information about these buildings. (You can read more about his actions here, which includes a partial name list of the children who died).

Ai Weiwei headed to Chengdu to press for this activist’s release. While he was there police broke into his hotel room and beat him. A video documenting the beating and the events regarding the gov’t cover up in Sichuan is available with translations. The footage is stark and shows a little too clearly how activists in China are repressed.

Earlier this year Ai Weiwei again made international headlines when authorities in Shanghai condemned his art studio. His response was to throw a massive party before the demolition at which the main dish was to be river crabs. As you might remember from my post that covered Chinese internet creatures, “river crab” sounds like “harmony” in Chinese, and represents gov’t censorship.

The Beijing police did not allow him to leave his to attend his own party. Being on house arrest, or being tailed by police is fairly typical for Ai Weiwei. He was arrested more than 22 times in 2009 alone.

UPDATE: Sunday Morning Beijing time, Ai Weiwei is detained at the Beijing airport by police. He has now been unreachable for almost 12 hours. His studio is surrounded by police and several of his friends have been arrested as well.

UPDATE 4/6/2011: Three days and still no word from Ai Weiwei. It is starting to seem as if he has finally crossed the line and will be charged with subverting state power, which would likely be a 5-10 year prison term.

Update 5/12/2011: Ai Weiwei is still missing, and the government has yet to charge him with any crime. On this anniversary of the tragedy that he devoted so much of his efforts to, his silence today is saddening.

Further reading:

Interview with Ai Wei Wei in Timeout HK

ChinaGeeks.com Ai Wei Wei story archive

Gallery of Ai Wei Wei’s works (or for those of us who don’t get modern art, a helpful introduction to the meaning)

20 responses to “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei? – News Story of the Week”

  1. Tim says:

    I love that he can create something that Chinese officials absolutely when bananas for and bragged about until the world’s ears were bleeding, but then they can just beat him whenever they want. Makes one wonder what happens to folks who haven’t designed massive world-famous structures…

    • Tom says:

      I chose to start with Ai Weiwei exactly for this reason. He is China’s most famous artist, and he still can’t fight for children killed by a natural disaster without being beaten. There are so many others missing or in jail at the moment that I wanted to highlight something of a best case scenario.

  2. The report on the quake and on children’s deaths in collapsed schools did not support Ai Weiwei’s very public, world-wide, attention-getting assertions.

    The Chinese government was greatly criticized throughout the world based upon Ai Weiwei’s charges. But the truth seems to have been that

    a) The number of children killed in the quake was proportional to their percentage of the overall population, and

    b) Many of the schools WERE shoddily built in the 1960s because, as one local official admitted, “We were glad to be able to build anything for the kids; we had very little money at that time and they were being educated in mud caves that leaked in the winter. Even the poorly-constructed schools seemed at the time like a big improvement.”

    Our recent experience with Wikileaks in the USA has demonstrated that it is never a good idea to embarrass national governments–particularly with hasty, very public accusations. And particularly if they are false.

    • Tom says:

      Did you watch the videos? Regardless of the outcome of his findings, it seems like the police were acting very much outside the law, and in a way that the Chinese public would be ashamed of if it was made more public (I am basing this on how they view the city management police). A gov’t that allows it’s artists to be beaten in this fashion shouldn’t be surprised when they are criticized.
      On top of that I visited the schools in Sichuan, and I’ve seen many of the buildings that collapsed (the picture in the post is from my trip). Most of them were more recently constructed, and the lack of steel reinforcing the concrete and brick structures was behind most of the child casualties.
      We will never know what percentage of the total were school children because the gov’t has refused to release a comprehensive list of names. Ai Weiwei and his team were blocked every step of the way.

    • Tom says:

      Also your website is blocked in China, I find that a bit ironic that you can’t even praise their accomplishments.

    • Chopstik says:


      Even if we hew to the information you’ve given (with no source information for verification), I think you’re missing a larger point. The government gave its own version of what happened and allowed no independent review by anyone else (for fear that their version would be proven wrong?). It is very easy to assert a given story and then to ignore anything that contradicts that assertion. The government’s role here was not one of trying to drill down and see what went wrong in order to fix it in the future – it was to make it go away. This is not to say that Ai Weiwei (or anyone else critical of the government) is right – merely to note that the government’s quick “resolution” of the casualties (particularly of schoolchildren) and any subsequent “follow-up” left a great deal to be desired and only served to further the interest of those in power and not those they allege to serve.

  3. john book says:

    So, god-free….it seems your name says it all again…
    a. It is ok that children die in sub-standard buildings as long as the death-rate is proportional to the population….What, you don’t like children? I am recalling that Hitler said the same thing about Jewish kids being gassed and burned in his ovens… ‘cept Hitler wanted the proportions to be equal.

    b. I believe Jesus said it best when He said something like, “Woh be unto anyone who harms one hair on one of these little-one’s head.” It’s good, heh, that some corrupt construction company and the government officials who approved the job, build junk that kills kids so they can line their own pockets. Man, you got a twisted sense of right and wrong.

    c. And silly me… who am I to say that beating citizens who disagree with their government is wrong? After all, Wei Wei is just one little guy… why not just lose him and really show him who’s boss. What happens god-free, when YOU don’t agree with the party line?

  4. kaz says:

    tom, do you think there is any link between the Frontline doco being aired and today’s (Sunday) detention of Ai WW at the airport and his assistants all being dragged to the police station?

    • Tom says:

      It’s very had to know if there is any connection with that. I think they may also be sending a signal to all of dissidents, if they arrest the most well known dissident, no one is safe.

  5. […] This week Frontline aired an in-depth look at Chinese artist/dissident (or perhaps  dissident/artist) Ai Weiwei. The full episode entitled “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei” is available online here along with a profile of his online activism here. If you aren’t … Continue reading → […]

  6. cainandtoddbenson says:

    “Ai Weiwei Freedom” 自由, 艾未未. Art, image. Ai Weiwei.


  7. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  8. […] Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei? – News Story of the Week | Seeing Red in China […]

  9. […] Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei? – News Story of the Week (seeingredinchina.wordpress.com) […]

  10. […] Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei? – News Story of the Week (seeingredinchina.wordpress.com) […]

  11. NiubiCowboy says:

    How will this affect China’s competitiveness in the global economy in years to come when all its best and brightest have either disappeared, emigrated, been arrested, or been intimidated into never venturing outside the proverbial box?

    • Tom says:

      I think we’ve already started seeing how that affects China competitiveness, many companies are afraid of upsetting the gov’t which has lead so many officials and businessmen to opt for copying (which is safe) rather than innovating.
      I’ve been to a few Chinese art museums, and they are a bit too tame to really be enjoyable.

      • NiubiCowboy says:

        Yep, you’re absolutely right. I’ve always thought of China’s plans to become an innovation/research center of the world in terms of that silly underpants gnomes bit on South Park. Although I hardly ever watch that show, that sketch always stuck with me.

        Step 1 – Declare that China will become a center for innovation, technological breakthroughs, and creative thinking in a decade.
        Step 2 – …
        Step 3 – Profit!

  12. […] For more on some of the controversy about the schools collapsing read my post about Ai Weiwei’s investigation […]

  13. […] on June 23, 2011 by Tom It’s very tempting at this moment to celebrate the release of Ai Weiwei, but the current situation is a painful reminder of just how far China has left to go before it […]

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