Ai Weiwei

Art crackdown creates a climate for unrest

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 April, 2011, 12:00am


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In spite of China's impressive economic reforms and liberalisation, the same measure of liberalisation has been sadly lacking with regards to civil liberties and artistic freedom. While the Chinese government appears to be in constant debate over how best to continue alleviating poverty and maintaining a forward-looking economy, it adheres to a predictably hard line towards any hint of dissent and regarding civil rights. For years, internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei actively engaged in social commentary either explicitly or through his work, hoping to improve social injustice around the country by publicising cases of suspected maladministration. But despite his international standing, the authorities have secretly detained him and made a number of allegations against him, although he has not yet been charged.

It is unclear whether the authorities realised the significance of its actions against Ai or not, but by suppressing the actions of Ai the artist, they create a perception of having launched an attack on art itself. Hence artists from around the world, including novelist Salman Rushdie, have come to his support, not because they share a personal connection with him, but because they share a belief in the value of art. Ai and his fellow artists around the world perform in various media to provoke debate, ask questions of ourselves and our society and challenge conventions. And they choose to provoke such thought through artistic work because they believe such expressions through peaceful means are more effective than violent uprising.

One would have thought that these were the kind of values that any government would want to embrace. The Chinese government in particular, with its concern for social stability, should want to encourage peaceful expressions of dissent through art. But instead, it has now launched a broad crackdown against film festivals, music performances and lectures at bookstores. Social tensions are indeed increasing, but not because there are more violent calls for change, but because the government has been removing the opportunities to express dissent peacefully. The government has created a social climate where unrest is more, rather than less, likely to happen.