Negotiating the way through Ai Weiwei-land and the barrage of mainstream media (msm) and Web opinions, Joni Mitchell’s song, “Both Sides Now,” on classic radio comes to mind:
Old friends are acting strange
they shake their heads
say I’ve changed
something’s lost, something’s gained.
Equanimity is a cop-out in this debate that pivots on black and white stereotypes of good and evil, freedom and oppression. You’ve got to pick a side, or be dissed for being wishy-washy.
Team Ai Weiwei, unsurprisingly, is in high gear, firing away with the usual barrage of clichés:
1. The Chinese government is repressive and disinclined to allow voices that challenge the official narrative. OK, what next?
2. Freedom of speech and expression has been shackled – for Ai as an individual and also as a hero of the people.
Ai is no prisoner of conscience. He had his liberties, to a point. In a roundabout fashion, he acknowledged pushing the limits of permissibility and would be read the Riot Act eventually.
Some part of him may have thought it wouldn’t happen; the prestige of his family and himself, and his celebrity artist status in the West, were an insurance of sorts.
That probably expired when he made allegations that would be hard to prove, about cover-up and corruption in the Sichuan earthquake. How many children actually died in tofu schools, which ones? Who to charge – for criminal neglect, corruption, what?
There’d be accusations, counter-accusations, false accusations, scapegoats. The kind of witchhunt that rocked China within living memory. Ai should know well the consequences of such events, given his personal experiences.
Yet, in a country that values “face,” he chose to rub it in -in a public fashion. No specific law was broken, unlike “quaint” offences such as lese majeste in Thailand, or even hate speech such as John Galliano’s unfortunate anti-Jewish rant in France.
But for people who grasp Chinese cultural tradition such as mianzi, an unspoken rule had been infringed; as good a reason as any to put Ai Weiwei in his place.
Ai’s politics had come to eclipse his “art,” which would be devalued without his “dissident” tag.
However, a possibility of ulterior motive behind Ai’s detention does not mean that he is not guilty of the charges he will face.
China claims to operate within its own legal system, like it or not.
Anywhere, law can be subsumed to power politics. Consider the brazenness of the “rape” case so rapidly whipped up against Julian Assange.
Or the political farce that is the 2nd sodomy trial of Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia.
Presuming his innocence, Ai Weiwei’s supporters are entitled to call for his release. But the cry for justice should not be confused with the right to freedom of speech and expression.
Ai enjoyed that privilege – until he crossed his own Rubicon.
It is also hard for Team Ai to accept that lionizing him (or LXB) as poster child for “enlightened” Western values is counterintuitive with the Chinese.
The underclass can’t “get”’ a man who paints abstract brush strokes about rights and freedoms; they’d probably prefer someone who can make immediate material gains in their lives.
The prosperous classes that have gained from economic reforms aren’t enthusiastic about his brand of advocacy that will upset their world overnight. Ai Weiwei is simply irrelevant to most sectors.
By that logic, the “wary” authorities should be able to put up with a few oddballs and iconoclasts. But Westerners tend to look at China in real-time or, at earliest, from 1949. Chinese are more likely to look back – over a longer time arc – at the future.
The 19th century Taiping Rebellion was big enough to lay waste to much of China, weakening it in the process.
A single spark – or a combination, lit from outside – can start a prairie fire in a country with a list of combustible factors.
To their discredit, knee-jerk reactions by overzealous authorities can sometimes victimize dedicated people working below the radar – and inside the system – to move a country along expanded and diverse paths.
But Ai could have done better by himself and probably even China, if his self-righteousness – one man seeking redress for all a country’s ills – had been scaled down into more pragmatic tasks: he could have built a school for the underprivileged class he wants to champion.
Instead, indulging in Western media stardom and an economic dependency, he became an outsider to China’s cause.