Ai Weiwei on the issues of Modern China

Ai Weiwei is the famed artist behind the 2008 Olympic Stadium, ‘The Bird’s Nest’, as well as the ‘Sunflower Seeds’ exhibition in the Tate Modern last year. His work is recognised around the world as displays against the Chinese Government; his semi-nude self-portrait ‘Grass Mud Horse’ in particular was interpreted by many in the upper echelons of the Government as a mutinous display against them.

In April, Weiwei was arrested on charges of tax evasion, which many suspect was a cover for the Chinese government to end his rebelliousness. Following 3 months of captivity, arrests of those close to Weiwei and an extensive campaign to set him free, he was finally released on 22nd June. The conditions of his freedom were that he could not leave Beijing for a year and that he must stop publicly speaking out against the Government. He has since broken these terms, appearing in a number of worldwide publications to condemn the Chinese government; so it would seem that the imminent future for Weiwei is bleak.

Weiwei feels that he must speak out against the changing face of modern China and highlight the issues which are being set aside by the leaders of his country. He says that “Beijing is two cities. One is of power and of money. People don’t care who their neighbours are; they don’t trust you. The other city is one of desperation. I see people on public buses, and I see their eyes, and I see they hold no hope.”

His opinions were proved tragically correct last month, by the horrifying story of Wang Yue, a two year old toddler involved in a hit and run. CCTV footage of Yue being run over by two different vehicles emerged on the internet. She then lay in a puddle of her own blood for ten minutes while 18 passers-by walked straight past her. Eventually 58 year old scavenger Chian Xianmei pulled her out of the road and went for help, but by then it was too late. Yue passed away a week later. The story was met with shock and anger in China, with many blaming the spiritual vacuum created by its rapid expansion and modernisation, which has led to the country’s people competing to climb the economic and social ladder.

Yue’s story will not have come as a surprise to Weiwei, who has spoken out against modernisation stating that “You don’t see yourself as part of the city — there are no places that you relate to, that you love to go. No corner, no area touched by a certain kind of light. You have no memory of any material, texture, shape. Everything is constantly changing, according to somebody else’s will, somebody else’s power”.

Weiwei’s opinions may represent the apparent undercurrent of disillusionment running throughout contemporary China. Or he may in fact merely be a public voice representing a minority of the Chinese population, who feel their heritage is being erased in the interest of modernisation. However, so little is truly known about the public opinion in China at present due to the strict nature of the Chinese Government, and perhaps this is the largest issue of all, one Weiwei is highly aware of. “No one is willing to speak out. What are they waiting for?”

Whether Weiwei is the voice of a silent people, or an anti-authoritarian radical, he still represents the West’s growing curiosity in the secrecy of modern China; although, his continuing appearances in Western media means that he is likely to be back in prison soon. It has also recently come to light that the Chinese Government are still holding Weiwei for his apparent tax evasion and are demanding ¥12 million (£1.18 million) for unpaid taxes and fines. Weiwei is desperately attempting to get the money together, but even if he is able to, the future still seems dark for him, and the resilience of the Chinese Government could mean that Weiwei may never escape this constant game of cat and mouse. As in his own words, “Cities really are mental conditions. Beijing is a nightmare. A constant nightmare.”

Ben James

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