By BOB SAN
AAP staff writer
I have one thing in common with famed Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Wei Wei. We both stood on China’s Tiananmen Square and gave the middle-finger salute as an expression of our displeasure with the Chinese government.
But that’s where our similarity ends. While I did my gesture under Mao’s portrait, I did it secretively so we would not get arrested by the many soldiers and plainclothes security.
But Ai is a Chinese citizen and he knew full well that his action could lead to harassment from the repressive regime and even imprisonment. But he went ahead and did it and put it out there for all to see. That is the kind of courage of conviction that has earned Ai international respect and adoration and the scorn and disdain and subsequent imprisonment from the Chinese rulers.
Ai’s notoriety attracted U.S. film maker Alison Klayman to do a documentary of him. Titled “Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry.” The documentary debuted in Toronto and I recently was able to watch this beautifully done piece of work that is part journalism and part history.
I was already aware of Ai and his heroic human rights actions that he risks his life to do in the name of human rights. Klayman’s 90-minute documentary allowed me to learn even more about Ai as a person and my admiration for him grew even more.
Klayman, a Brown University graduate who worked for PBS in Beijing, followed Ai from 2008 to spring 2011 for this film and documented many well-known episodes that made Ai famous.
Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Ai was hired by the Chinese government to help with the design of the Bird’s Nest, the Olympic stadium where track and field action and the open and closing ceremonies took place. Instead of basking in the glory as a designer of what the Chinese government proudly looked at as the Game’s most acclaimed architectural wonder, Ai turned rebellious. He had hoped that by hosting the Olympics, China would join the international community and embrace the universal values of freedom and human rights.
It didn’t take long for Ai to realize that that’s not going to happen. Ai knew that the Chinese government was using the Olympics as a platform to show the “New China,” a China that is no longer a brutal regime, but a more tolerant and open China.
Ai could see through China’s deceit and he refused to be a pawn in the Communist public relation machine. He declined any publicity work to promote the game and boycotted the Olympics. He even criticized Steven Spielberg and Chinese director Zhang Yimou (a former classmate at the Beijing Film Academy) for selling their souls to help the Communists’ lying propaganda. Spielberg eventually severed any ties with the Beijing Olympics.
Hindsight has proven Ai to be 100 percent correct. In its quest to host the Olympics, China had pledged to introduce different viewpoints and values to Chinese society and to help open up its repressive political and social systems. Now four years after the Olympics, things have gotten worse in China and the Communist regime has grown increasing ruthless towards dissidents. Ai is a living proof.
Thumbing his nose against the Olympics was one of many pubic acts of defiance by Ai. In many of his art works, Ai not so subtly expressed his hatred for the oppressive China government. In a photo series, he dropped a pricey clay pot dating back to the Hang Dynasty to pieces and painted a dozen ancient pots with Coca Cola signs to reflect how the Communists had destroyed ancient Chinese cultures and replaced them with mindless quests for money.
In a video, Ai looked squarely at the camera and said, “F… You, Motherland.” He had openly said in interviews with the western media that the China is “a nation without humanity.”
Ai also named his Beijing Studio 258 Fake to poke fun at China’s Communists, who helped earn China a worldwide notoriety for committing brazen piracy and making fake goods.
And there is the picture of his one-finger salute on Tiananmen Square.
Ai’s audacious challenge to the authority was tolerated for years, perhaps because of his international fame. The government had installed numerous cameras outside of 258 Fake but he had escaped detention. But his work after the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake finally forced the Communist hand.
After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai traveled to Sichuan and immediately discovered the government was trying desperately to cover up the actual number of fatalities, which numbered 70,000 people, and especially the number of children who died when their school buildings collapsed. He asked simple questions such as how many people died and who were they. He was denied any information and was accused that he was a spy for Japan and U.S.
Undeterred, Ai started a “citizen’s investigation” to get the names of all the children who perished. He recruited workers on the Internet to help him interview parents and local people to gather names of the students. After one year, they came up with lists of the dead including birthdates and schools. Ai published all 5,121 names on his blog, and the lists, on paper, are pasted on a large wall in his studio. He and his volunteers also made an audiotape where they recited loudly the names of all the children. The tape lasts 3 hours and 40 minutes.
Ai also noticed how schools collapsed while other private buildings stood in the earthquake. Ai and many parents who lost their children soon found out that the school buildings were built with shoddy “tofu skin” materials, the result of corruption between government officials and contractors to channel money into their own pockets.
But Ai’s most visual remembrance of the Sichuan children is the stunning exhibit he designed in 2009 in Munich. On a wall of a museum, Ai built a memorial using about 5,000 backpacks, one for each child. In the middle of the wall, Ai spelled out what a grieving mother told him about her daughter: “She lived happily on this Earth for 7 years.”
He called the exhibit “Sorry,” a satirical reference to a Chinese government that repeatedly said sorry after the earthquake, but as yet had not done anything to reveal the corruption that led to the disasters.
In the documentary, Ai was talking to an admirer of his art and the admirer told him, “You are going too far.”
Turned out the man was right. Ai’s publication of the number and names of children who died in the earthquake and his accusation of government and business corruption that led to shoddy buildings had crossed the line. The government finally came down hard on him.
After the 2009 list was made public, the government shut down his blog. But Ai continued his human right campaigns on Twitter.
Then in April 2011, Ai was arrested and disappeared for 81 days. Appearing shaken after his release, Ai said he couldn’t speak of what had happened under the terms of his probation.
But Ai soon returned to Twitter. The Chinese government again clamped down on him and accused him of $1.85 million in unpaid tax and fines and put him under house arrest. After he posted that on Twitter, citizens drove to his home and threw yuans onto his yard. The government later raised his unpaid tax amount to $2.4 million. Ai appealed the accusation, but in an internationally covered fiasco in July 2012, he was not allowed to show up at his own trial, and his appeal was denied.
Like I said, Ai’s brave acts of defiance against a ruthless regime is well known to anyone who cares about human rights in China. But in “Ai Wei Wei, Never Sorry,” I got to see Ai as a person.
I saw a soft-spoken, gregarious global citizen who is comfortable chatting with the rich and famous in western art galleries or talking lovingly to grieving parents who lost their children in the Sichuan earthquakes. I saw someone who is as at home eating a sandwich in New York City as he was chowing down on some exotic Chinese food in Beijing. Above all, I see a courageous and caring man who loves his fellow Chinese, especially those who have no wealth or power, and who is willing to risk his own life to defend their rights and fight on their behalf.
What will happen to Ai now?
In the documentary, Ai said: “Freedom is a pretty strange thing. Once you have experienced it, it remains in your heart, and no one can take it away.”
His love for freedom and human dignity convinces me that Ai, in one way or another, will push on to fight his battle and those of his fellow Chinese. China’s “nation without humanity” is not about to make quick changes in improve the human rights of its people. But fighters like Ai, Lui Xia Bo and others give me hope that their heroic acts will inspire their fellow Chinese to continue to raise questions and put pressure on the government to give its people basic human rights they deserve.