Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei found hidden listening devices, or “bugs,” in his studio after returning to his Beijing home last week. Ai, famous for his design of the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, was visiting an exhibition of his work in London, his first trip out of the country since the Chinese government seized his passport four years ago.
Ai continues to be watched and silenced by the Chinese government, years after first gaining the attention of Chinese officials for his advocacy of free speech and protest of communist party policy.
The 58-year-old artist struggled his whole life with uncalled-for government oppression. His father was exiled by Mao Zedong during the cultural revolution, and the Ai family grew up in poverty. At one point they lived in a hole in the ground, where Ai learned to make bricks from mud. After his childhood of exile, Ai became a multimedia artist, working with film, sculpture, performance art and more to protest injustices of the Chinese government. The first time the Chinese government took notice of him, they shut down his blog, and sent police to “interrogate” Ai, which resulted in his hospitalization for a cerebral hemorrhage. Soon after, officials claimed his Shanghai studio lacked the proper permits and destroyed it.
Ai was threatened with charges of tax avoidance, pornography, bigamy and foreign currency irregularities, but he has never been convicted of a crime. Many more of these claims of law-breaking have been thrown at Ai, without evidence of actual illegal activity. The interaction that prompted his passport-revocation began with Ai being detained at an airport in 2011. In trying to board his flight, Ai was stopped, hooded and taken first to a secluded country hotel, then a military compound. He was then imprisoned without conviction for 81 days, in which he was kept on a 24-hour watch and interrogated 50 times. The interrogation centered around the question, “What is your occupation?”
Like a criminal, Ai Weiwei has reached world recognition because of the oppression he has faced. But unlike a criminal, Ai Weiwei didn’t break laws to reach this type of fame; he simply made art. Ai’s art garnered Chinese officials’ attention because it often calls out injustices of the government, challenging the Chinese communist party. Traditionally, this government has squelched almost any dissidence that manifests itself through freedom of speech. Its continued surveillance and suppression of Ai’s art perfectly exemplifies the fear of its people gaining a voice.
In response to the Chinese government’s failure to acknowledge its mistakes, Ai steps in and speaks up. After thousands of school children were killed in the Sichuan earthquake because their school failed to follow proper building codes, Ai made pieces recognizing their deaths, which the government was attempting to silence. He made sculptures of 9,000 individual backpacks, and published the names of the 5,000 dead schoolchildren. When the police beat him so badly he suffered brain damage, he created an ink print of the MRI scan of his brain. His photographic piece “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” shows him destroying a 2000-year-old artifact, dramatizing Ai’s frustration with the long history of oppression in China. A year after his airport arrest and unlawful detainment, Ai installed web cameras in his home to broadcast a 24-hour live feed of himself on weiweicam.com (this piece becomes all the more powerful in light of the recent bugging).
With decades of rebellious and activist art under his belt, Ai is a veteran symbol of someone that threatens the legitimacy of Chinese officials. But with Ai’s obvious international fame and support, the government’s continued suppression sends an even stronger message. It shows that China will stop at nothing to keep its people from exercising the freedom of speech. China continues to do all it can to stifle bad publicity, committing constant social injustices, just to maintain the structure of its oppressive regime. There are many differences between Chinese and American law, but there shouldn’t be any differences when it comes to freedom of speech. All citizens, no matter how powerless, should be able to voice their struggles and dissatisfactions with their government. In ignoring these voices, China shows an absolute disregard for the lives of their citizens.
This what makes Ai Weiwei such an important figure in China and the world today. Ai Weiwei’s art calls the Chinese government out on its wrongdoings and attempts to hold the country accountable for its actions, and creates a place for himself in the conversation. Upon finding the hidden bugs in his studio, Ai responded powerfully, just like he has throughout his career. He posted a video in which firecrackers are set off in a bucket next to the discovered devices, the caption reading “Did you hear that?”