From Yan Liang: Ai Weiwei's Disappearance
19 April 2011
Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, the world-acclaimed Chinese artist and activist, disappeared at Beijing international airport when he was boarding a plane to Hong Kong on April 4th, 2011. Many days have passed, and nobody knows where he is. Government officials contacted, including the police, have denied knowing where he is, while the propaganda machine launched into a smear campaign against him. The Chinese national news agency, XinHua, published an article pointing out that nobody is above the law and called Ai Weiwei a third-rate artist. Another state-run news agency claimed he was arrested for tax fraud.People are using Twitter to spread the gossip that he has an illegitimate son with a young woman – and to provide her name and address.

Government sources neglected to mention that Ai Weiwei is one of those outspoken artists and activists appealing for the government to be more transparent and obey laws. He supports the parents who lost their children in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, in which thousands of children died under the rubble thanks to what is being called “Tofu construction”, a Chinese expression for the shoddy work of local government and developers. The government has denied these claims and has jailed justice-seeking parents and activists. When he went to Sichuan last year to support a human rights lawyer, Tan Zuoren, Ai was severely beaten and had to have brain surgery shortly afterwards on a visit to Germany.

Ai Weiwei - Leapfrog with Cao Ni Ma (2009)
Ai Weiwei is holding a model of a type of horse called “Cao Ni Ma”, which was created by Chinese web bloggers and only exists in the virtual world to express people’s anger and dissatisfaction. “Cao Ni Ma” is the homophone of “fuck you” in Chinese; the literal translation is “ grass-mud horse”. Ai Weiwei's pose, covering the mid-section of his body, is a homophone of “the central committee of Chinese Communist Party” (Dang Zhong Yang), which is also taboo.

Ai Weiwei is a provocative avant-garde artist. His latest exhibition Sunflower Seeds is currently showing at Tate Modern in London. His most famous work is the Beijing Olympic stadium, the Bird’s Nest. Not even his eminence has saved him from disappearing along with over 100 other dissidents in the aftermath of January’s “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia.

His father, Ai Qing, was a popular revolutionary poet, reportedly among those invited by Chairman Mao to Tiananmen Gate to the announcement of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Ai Qing was invited. One of his famous lines in a poem written during the Japanese occupation is: “Why are my eyes always full of tears? As I am deeply in love with this land.” Some web writers are now changing this to read, “Why are my eyes always full of tears? Because my son has disappeared in this land.” In an interview with the BBC, Ai Weiwei’s mother said he was prepared for this day, and that he had told her that three possible fates awaited him: jail, exile, and accidental death.

What strikes me most is why, in China, citizens can disappear like this, with no legal process whatsoever. Launching a smear campaign when the person in question is nowhere to be found is a very old-school Chinese Communist Party tactic. And they will, if they wish, convict Ai Weiwei. There’s a Chinese saying that the authorities can always trump up a charge if they are out to condemn someone.

This is the saddest aspect of this economically-developed giant. Any voice that challenges authority is stifled even though it is very small compared to the state-controlled media. Talk about political reform, human rights, and freedom of speech are still taboo. After 60 years of absolute power, the Chinese Communist Party is more fragile than the world thinks – and has trouble dealing with any criticism or challenge, especially from its own people.

An international petition appealing for Ai’s release has been set up online, and artists from Sweden to Beijing have launched protests designed to draw attention to Ai Weiwei’s plight.

Since his name, Ai Weiwei, literally translates as “love future,” thousands of messages of support for him on Chinese websites have used the homophone of his name - “love future” – to get around the censors, while wondering if the future will really love us back.

The BBC has recently aired a compelling documentary about Ai Weiwei’s life and work. Though the man has disappeared, the artist continues to make his mark. 


Yan Liang
Photo: Li Zhao

Yan Liang is a prize-winning journalist and translator based in Montreal with more than ten years’ experience working in Canada and China. She presently works for Radio-Canada International (RCI) as a host and journalist. She was involved in several translation projects, such as Arthur Miller’s autobiography Time Bends (2010, Shanghai 99Read), Stan Douglas’s film transcript Journey into Fear (2004) and others. She is also a freelance writer for several magazines in Taiwan and China.

Photo of Yan Liang by Li Zhao.




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