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burning issue


china: creative expression on notice

dan edwards

Dan Edwards is currently completing a book and PhD thesis on China’s independent documentary movement at Melbourne’s Monash University.

Free Ai Weiwei!, hand carved stamp by Carloe Liu Free Ai Weiwei!, hand carved stamp by Carloe Liu
creative commons, some rights reserved
“IF IT CARRIES ON LIKE THIS IT WILL BECOME LIKE THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION.” THAT WAS THE ASSESSMENT EXPRESSED TO ME RECENTLY BY A WELL KNOWN CHINESE CREATIVE FIGURE REGARDING THE CURRENT SITUATION IN THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC. IF THAT SOUNDS LIKE HYPERBOLE, THE FACT THAT THESE WORDS ARE BEING UTTERED BY SOMEONE OLD ENOUGH TO REMEMBER WHAT THE MAOIST ERA WAS ACTUALLY LIKE IS INDICATIVE OF THE PREVAILING MOOD AMONGST THE NATION’S ACTIVIST AND CREATIVE COMMUNITIES.

On Sunday April 3, China’s best known contemporary artist Ai Weiwei was taken from Beijing airport as he attempted to board a flight for Hong Kong. He has not been directly heard from since. His wife, Lu Qing, told international media outlets on Monday, May 16 that she had been allowed to see the artist the day before for around 20 minutes—her first contact with Ai for six weeks. It is still not clear where or why the artist is being held. Four of Ai’s associates have also been arrested and have not been heard from now for seven weeks.

As well as being a prolific filmmaker, architect and designer, Ai Weiwei has long been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government. His domestic and international profile, however, led many to believe he was unlikely to suffer the harsh treatment dealt out to many lesser known opponents of the regime. In the words of The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones on April 4, his arrest is being interpreted as an attempt to “stamp out the idea that any individual is greater than the law of the state.”

Unfortunately Ai Weiwei’s case is just the tip of the iceberg. After anonymous calls for a Chinese “Jasmine Revolution” emulating recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East circulated online in mid-February, the Chinese authorities moved swiftly to neutralise the perceived threat. Initially political activists were targeted, including lawyers and well known bloggers. In March, they also began exerting pressure on parts of China’s creative community.

The China Human Rights Defender website claims, “The Chinese government has criminally detained a total of 39 individuals since mid-February.” Seventeen of these are still in detention, nine have been charged and are awaiting trial and three have already been sent to camps for “re-education through labour.” The claims are supported by a map detailing the names and locations of those detained (see chrdnet.org). Earlier this month the same organisation reported that around 200 others have been placed under various forms of “soft detention”—in other words, house arrest.

In addition, an unknown number of people across China have been subject to a ramping up of intrusive surveillance, harassment and interference in their daily lives. On March 18 for example, I visited the academic and documentary filmmaker Ai Xiaoming (no relation to Ai Weiwei) at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. Ai has made numerous low budget documentaries focusing on controversial issues such as the spread of AIDS in rural China through unregulated blood collections.

As Ai Xiaoming led a translator and myself to her apartment, we were intercepted by a plain-clothed security officer who addressed Ai by name and asked what we were doing. He was joined a few moments later by another man and a woman, while two other men stood watching a few metres away. None of the group were uniformed or offered any form of identification. The first man informed Ai Xiaoming that we needed to accompany him to the campus security office (bao wei chu), while the woman asked me and my translator our names, occupations and places of origin. Ai Xiaoming agreed to accompany the “officers” if they let me and my translator go. As my companion and I made a hurried exit we were followed by other plain-clothed personnel into the subway station next to the campus.

On May 13 China Human Rights Defenders reported that Ai Xiaoming has recently received a high volume of “silent phone calls, believed to be automated, that have disrupted her phone service.” The keyhole to her front door was also recently filled with glue by an unknown harasser.

Although certain filmmakers and artists have long been under surveillance and subject to phone taps, since the 1980s it has been rare for Chinese authorities to physically prevent artists meeting with foreigners. It is a disturbing development that the kinds of restrictions that more radical political activists have long endured are now being extended to established creative figures.

In more bad news for China’s film community, on April 18 organisers announced the cancellation of the 8th Documentary Film Festival China, an event staged annually since 2004 in the far flung Beijing suburb of Tongzhou. The festival is one of a handful of regular events in China showcasing films made outside the country’s state-controlled approval system. The 2011 edition had been planned for the first week of May. Critic and programmer for the Vancouver International Film Festival, Shelly Kraicer, reported on the dGenerate website (www.dgeneratefilms.com) on May 12 that, “Several levels of government, represented at a surprisingly high level, made it clear...that this was not the right time for an independent organisation to screen Chinese films that the state has not authorised.” Kraicer also claimed that foreign visitors who had journeyed to Tongzhou were followed by plain-clothed police.

The literary world has also been affected by the tightening of the cultural sphere. On March 27 Yang Hengjun, a China-born Australian novelist and blogger, disappeared in the city of Guangzhou. He resurfaced the following weekend and was allowed to return to Australia via Hong Kong, but he declined to elaborate on his experience.

Writer Liao Yiwu was less fortunate. In early May he was denied permission to leave China to attend the Sydney Writers Festival to talk about his new book, The Corpse Walker. This turn of events was disappointing but unsurprising—writers’ organisation PEN claims that Liao has been denied permission to leave his own country 14 times in the past three years.

It remains to be seen whether the present crackdown represents a longer term hardening in the government’s attitude or is simply a panicked, typically heavy-handed response to events overseas. Either way, it’s a sobering reminder of the immense arbitrary power wielded by China’s ruling party and how quickly cultural liberalisation can be wound back when the state feels threatened. Even if all the detained figures are released tomorrow, the atmosphere of fear will linger, intensifying the already pervasive self-censorship that exists in China’s media and cultural spheres. Which is, of course, precisely the intention. The message from the authorities is clear—the right to creative expression in China is always on notice.


This report is an updated version of the one originally appearing in the e-dition of May 10.

Dan Edwards is currently completing a book and PhD thesis on China’s independent documentary movement at Melbourne’s Monash University.

RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 23

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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