It seems we can’t get enough of Chinese dissidence these days. Just days after Liu Xiaobo received his Nobel Peace prize, the Tate Modern unveiled a new installation at its prestigious Turbine Hall by artist-activist Ai WeiWei. Officials had to quickly raise the ropes though to keep visitors from treading too closely. Uncharacteristically for Ai, who has vocally criticized China’s Communist party on corruption, censorship and human rights, the reason was health and safety rather than political censorship—the 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds generated too much dust when walked upon. Ironically, however, the boundary between the viewers and Ai’s politically evocative work mirrors the eastern-western ideological divide that dissidents like Ai have come to represent.
Despite Ai’s assertions that he does not see ideology in terms of East and West, negative associations with China’s Communism are inevitable in Ai’s work. “The seeds are the memory of communist times,” said Ai in The Sunday Times—a time when millions of Chinese starved to death in the Mao-era famines with little else to eat besides sunflower seeds. Then, Chairman Mao was often depicted as the sun and the people as sunflowers turned towards him in revolutionary loyalty. When visitors could walk upon the seeds, visitors could reflect upon the feeling of masses beneath the crushing feet of totalitarianism.
Such imagery and critical interpretations contribute to a mainstream media picture that tends to draw a distinct line between western liberal capitalism and the eastern tyranny of communism. In the Telegraph’s review of Ai’s installation, Ai is quoted, “I remember my plane circling New York before landing, with the lights below like jewellery, so much energy. It completely destroyed the education I had had about capitalism. I began to think of this as a place of excitement.” That quote comes just before Ai further criticizes the Communist government that “still – today – doesn’t allow freedom of speech, free access to information or freedom of association. And those things are what I value the most. I don’t care about a few more buildings, or a lot of expensive cars.” What arises in the media support of dissidents like Ai is a highly romanticized image of a free and energetic capitalism next to a stiflingly sinister Chinese authoritarianism.
However, while Ai has much to say about Communist China he also has plenty to say about western capitalism. Ai’s previous catalogue of works include a Han dynasty style urn imprinted with a Coca Cola logo and a photograph of the White House and the middle finger. These of course remain Ai’s lesser known works to the mainstream public. Instead what really got Ai WeiWei in the international limelight was his collaboration on the 2008 Beijing Olympics main stadium design and then his subsequent public boycotting of the games.
Famous for denouncing the games as Communist propaganda, the media’s representation and repetition of information surrounding Ai’s boycott illustrates how Ai’s dissidence is clearly presented along national lines. In a 2009 interview posted on former CNN Beijing Bureau Chief Rebecca MacKinnon’s blog, Ai expressed as much dismay about western capitalism as he did about Chinese communist propaganda: “During the Olympics you could see all the foreign companies like NBC, Coca Cola, you know all those, Nike, all those companies. They're the same as the Chinese government. They're even worse. They just want to sell their product. They have nothing but just want to make a, you know, all those companies there, they're all the same shit. They have no belief, they have no, you know any kind of integrity, they just want to make a sale. So to us it's a big learning process.” But mainstream mediafication largely omits such references. Instead news surrounding Ai’s new Tate installation repetitively describes Ai as that artist that boycotted the Beijing Olympics, and denounced them as nothing more than propaganda and “the pretend smile of China.” Clearly, however, there is a broader picture that remains buried in sources not easily available to the average reader or the average attention span.
Perhaps Ai is inconsistent, perhaps Ai’s words were edited, or perhaps Ai is just someone who is tactfully presenting a product at a Unilever-commissioned event. Speaking to MacKinnon again who is also co-founder of citizen media site Global Voices Online, Ai also said, “If you as an American criticize us directly we find it impolite. Even if I know what you said is true, I still lose face...It's my own home so I don't like outsiders criticizing. What they should do is support us when we speak.”
If Ai is merely being polite with his comments against American capitalism, however, he is also perhaps unwittingly reinforcing an already latent ideological divide in mainstream sensibilities. As a symbol and spectacle of the tyrannies of Communist China, Ai’s words, taken out of the broader context, become like “real folk” television testimonials. They provide a legitimizing gloss in a mainstream media campaign that may have more to do with a vestigial capitalist cold-war appetite rather than an aesthetic or ethical one.
Such distinct ideological divisions of course distort the bigger picture. Western democracy might claim itself as a model of human rights and individual freedoms, but to an extent, that image has been due to the west’s historic ability to export its violence and various infringements. Millions starved under Maoist policies but so have millions under the western-backed cash crop development policies that frequently route food out of the mouths of starving populations in poorer nations into the mouths of wealthier ones. Political imprisonments are an issue in China, but so is Guantanamo Bay where a majority of detainees are thought to be innocent despite being held there for years. Ai has loudly led the charge against China over secrecy and cover-ups during the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes, but the US and Great Britain have waged a war borne largely on secrecy and cover-ups for the past eight years. As Ai WeiWei wrote on his blog (that was recently shut down by the Chinese Government): “Lies and violence are two great pillars of totalitarianism. One could say that lies are just another kind of violence.”
On the issue of free speech and censorship, those of us in the West are certainly freer than China but our own equality of access and representation is dubious and our freedoms are often underutilized, neglected or buried under so much reckless information that we easily blind ourselves to our own abuses and take false complacency in our own superiority. As journalist John Pilger stated in a recent address to Columbia University, we live in a system of “censorship by omission, the product of a parallel world of unspoken truth and public myths and lies.” How else would we explain that a truly “democratic” nation would have allowed a war to be waged on such false pretenses?
Such hypocrisies though rarely surface in a media machine formatted for short attention spans and self-indulgent consumerisms. In that respect though, sadly, perhaps dissident figures like Liu and Ai also appeal to a complacent self-indulgence. With China’s seemingly unstoppable rise, and the rest of the West in an apparent gridlock of decline, developing nations are increasingly looking to China as a model of progress and questioning the very model of liberal democracy long held up to them as paradigm. This is frightening for a society that once held such confidence in its political and economic superiority. Perhaps listening to dissidents like Ai and Liu speak out against Chinese social injustices are as much about nursing the shaken subconscious of the West as they are about rebuking the ideologies of the East. Their criticisms against what is happening over there allow us to come away with an increased sense of satisfaction with our own legitimacies and freedoms over here. Democratic capitalism’s reputation may be suffering as of late, but rest assured you’d still rather be here than over there.
But comfort is an easy and insidious habit to slip into, and such casual hypocrisies can become a destructive trap. Human rights, free speech and the right to question government are universal appeals, as any good dissident will say. They merely manifest problems in different ways. Confining the full dimensions of the art and activism of dissidents like Ai and Liu within national borders in a globalized world does a disservice to the very principles they represent. As Ai said of dissident support from outsiders, “They should encourage people to speak about what's happening in their own home.” No doubt that same advice should apply within our own borders as well.