Ai Weiwei: Positive Leader for Change in China

– BY SCHON BEECHLER

For the past year, Ai Wewei, the renowned Chinese contemporary artist who collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron as the artistic consultant on the “Bird’s Nest” (the Beijing National Stadium) for the 2008 Olympics, has been showing the world the power of positive leadership to take on a repressive government in China.

Mr. Ai is a provocateur known for artworks that question the Chinese government’s policies and values. He has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese government’s stance on democracy and human rights and also investigated government corruption and cover-ups, particularly the Sichuan schools corruption scandal following the collapse of so-called “tofu-skin schools” in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Ai Weiwei was arrested in Beijing Airport in April, 2011 and was held for over two months without any official charges being filed, officials alluding to allegations of “economic crimes” (tax evasion). After 81 days in solitary confinement, Ai Weiwei was released and returned to government-prohibited means of communication such as Twitter, interviews and subversive art.  While he kept a low profile after his release, he has become increasingly outspoken and has bridled against the restrictions. On November 1, the Chinese government delivered a punitive $2.4 million tax bill to the artist and since that time, Ai Weiwei seems to have dropped any reluctance to speak out and has lambasted the government’s tax penalty as naked retribution for his critiques against the governing Communist Party.

When tax officials gave Ai Weiwei only 15 days to come up with an amount that was more than three times the original sum he was accused of evading in taxes, thousands of people responded with donations. The movement to support him started when Hu Jia, a human rights activist, announced via microblog that he had donated $158 to Ai Weiwei.  Within a few hours, more than 1,600 supporters had pledged or donated $63,500.  And within the past two weeks, more than 20,000 people have contributed more than $840,000. When the Chinese government closed down Ai’s electronic account to prevent him from raising funds, Chinese from all over the country authorized bank and post office transfers and have even come to Ai’s home from distant cities to toss donations, some folded as paper airplanes, over the wall into his compound.

While Ai Weiwei fights for his freedom in China, his art is on display all over the world. In Taiwan a new exhibit includes the sculpture, Forever Bicycles. This enormous installation features thousands of bicycles welded together to create a stunning visual effect and is a reflection of Ai Weiwei’s perception of the rapid pace of China’s social change. The piece is part of a larger exhibit called Absent, which fittingly enough, Ai Weiwei is not permitted to attend.  Even when he is absent, however, Ai Weiwei’s art carries his messages loudly out into the world.