No more silk glove treatment of Ai Weiwei
Much have been written in western mass media recently about the clampdown on dissent, or rather, would-be-dissent in China. Is this focus unwarranted and unfair? Chinese state-owned media believes that is the case. Outsiders should stay out of China’s internal affairs, as it has its own ways and “laws” to deal with “criminals.” With the disappearance of renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei from public view on April 3 – when policemen at Beijing capital airport arrested him – attention from the outside world became even more directed towards China’s human rights situation. It’s ironic that the whereabouts of the designer of the “birds nest” Olympic stadium in Beijing are unknown, as the Olympic Games heralded a new era in China
The Beijing Olympics and improvement of human rights
The 2008 Beijing Olympics were awarded to Beijing after a strong media campaign was launched around the world. Delegates of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were convinced after listening to high-ranking policymakers in Beijing: giving China the opportunity to arrange the Olympics would also lead to an improvement of human rights. Well, perhaps it did improve for a short while, on the surface of things Yet, human rights organizations complained about how the city was cleaned up from unwanted elements during the months prior to this mega event. And during the weeks of the Olympics a test of letting ordinary Beijingers apply for demonstration permits failed miserably: none of those who filed a form were allowed to stage a protest against even anything minor. Moreover, several people were taken in by police for questioning though. Since the closure of the Beijing games, however, the situation for human rights in China has deteriorated – for lawyers, activists, journalists, bloggers, and scholars.
Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei?
Think of the Chinese Communist Party as the director of a symphony orchestra. All instruments are played by intellectual elite strata. Some soloists may be tolerated, but only within limits. No dissonance, no detours as a harmonious tune must be played. Think of Ai Weiwei as playing the trombone. He did not fall back into line, a stubborn artist not wanting to bend to the will of the director/authorities.
This angered the party more than it made them afraid. Quite a few observers have remarked that the arrest of Ai Weiwei shows the fragility and nervousness permeating the top echelons of the Chinese Communist Party. Others believe that the recent clampdown is due to the ripple effects of the unrest and toppling of regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. When it comes to the case of Ai, I think that the party is more annoyed than afraid. His mere existence as and increasingly outspoken critic of China’s political system could no longer be tolerated, even if marginalized and effectively censored. I think that the effects from the Middle East are indirect. It has not yet stirred the masses, but has made the power ministries and security apparatus more vigilant.
The unknown Ai Weiwei
Some observations have focused on how unknown – and somewhat contradictory – unpopular both Ai Weiwei and Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo are among the Chinese public. Often these arguments come from so-called establishment intellectuals who believe in, or have to parrot, government views of stability, order and “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Given the nature of China’s state-controlled media, not exactly geared toward soliciting the views of dissenting voices, how could “mainstream” Chinese, such as Mr. Wang at Yunnan street in the city of Jilin, or Ms. Li in Hangzhou know about this artist of famous descent?
Even in a democracy like Sweden, if you randomly picked out ten tech-savvy students from a high-school and showed them a photo of this country’s most “provocative and dissenting” artist – I am quite sure only 1 in 10 would have heard about him. And this in an uncensored media landscape, where people are nowadays glued to social media gadgets and all things crazy and hot, such as provocative artists and stand-up comedians.
Yet, in China the Communist Party cannot stand such abnormal behavior. What I in my latest book, After the Internet, Before Democracy: Competing Norms in Chinese Media and Society, call “the party-state norm” must be upheld at all costs. But believe me, this cost is weighing heavier with every passing day: politically, economically, symbolically, and culturally.
A hardliner time will sow seeds of dissonance and dissent
If China’s leaders have chosen to enter a hardliner mood for the long-term, not just until next year’s passing of the supreme baton to vice-president Xi Jinping, it will prove counterproductive. Today’s China is not the China of 1990, or the China of 1999. A hardline phase may in society — but also inside officialdom and the Party-apparatus — sow seeds of dissent and criticism, however muffled. Overreacting to invisible inside enemies and foreign straw men is not likely to pay off. Perhaps top leaders such as security god father Zhou Yongkang rest assured that they can get away with a continued hardliner stance? A recent Pew Institute survey just out shows that 87 percent of Chinese respondents are favorably disposed to China’s political system. (1)
I would not count too much on the Pew survey, however, as it is likely to be skewed by selection bias. Too few informants in the troubled countryside were interviewed, and given the continuing censorship of the internet, I guess more and more cosmopolitan urbanites will stop adhering to the propagated party-norm too.
(1) “Upbeat Chinese May Not Be Primed for a Jasmine Revolution” Pew Institute, http://t.co/9P8p7Bj