It’s hard to watch a good man go down, but that is exactly what I find myself doing everyday now since Ai Wei Wei’s battle with the Chinese government took over the front pages of a lot of the mainstream media and China related blogs. He is a heroic figure and, for Westerners, his return from confinement earlier this year, his continued defiance in the face of one of the world’s most oppressive and brutal governments, and the support he has from intellectuals around the world give him an aura of invincibility.
But Free Ai Wei Wei is a lot like Free Tibet: Doomed to failure. And here are the reasons why:
1) Weiwei’s support comes from two major places, the foreign media and Weibo, China’s Twitter.
The foreign media paints Weiwei into a very dark corner in today’s China, because a large majority of Chinese are not just patriotic, but also very nationalistic. Any foreign taint on a cause gives pro-government forces ammunition to shoot down that cause and, more importantly, sway the indifferent observer.
A case in point is the 1001 Ming and Qing chair’s Fairytale installation Weiwei did in Kassel. This has become a rallying cry for pro-government wumao and fenqing who call for the return of China’s heritage and label weiwei a traitor and a criminal for taking antiques abroad. We in the West have no idea what it feels like to have “pieces of the country” stolen and taken abroad for foreigners to look at. America does not have the history and Europe’s antiques are either in Europe or loaned out. We did all of the stealing; so when an Egyptian or Indian or Chinese cries out for the return of antiques, we might not comprehend it. But the emotion is real.
What this does is obscure and twist the conversation away from the freedom of artists to express themselves and the right of the state to oppress, harass and imprison people with impudence and instead focus the discussion on Weiwei’s credentials as a “patriotic Chinese” – something that resonates with every single Chinese person.
2) Weiwei is virtually unknown outside of Weibo. The vast majority of Chinese people have no clue who Ai Wei Wei is, what the fuss is all about, or why they should care. I wrote a story for the Hypermodern about the Wenzhou Train crash that talked about the government’s willingness to keep Weibo vibrant as long as the conventional media remained silent. The reasoning is simple: Weibo users are still a minority and, alone, are incapable of threatening the actual power of the government. Annoying? Yes. Dangerous? Not really. But if the masses get mobilized, then the state can fall in a matter of months.
Now Weiwei’s Weibo account has been axed for good. He has hundreds of thousands of supporters on Weibo, and probably millions of passive supporters, but they are currently powerless to do anything against the other 1.4 billion Chinese and the government that rules them.
3) And the number one reason why Ai Wei Wei will fail is that Chinese do not care about what he is fighting for. In yesterday’s post I briefly mentioned my thoughts on Chinese dreams and American dreams: Most Chinese today seek a stable life in which to raise children; Americans seek meaning and self-fulfillment. Fighting for a bearded fat dude who Tweets with foreigners, takes pictures of naked ladies, hustles antiques out of the country and evades taxes is just not on the agenda for a billion Chinese.
Ai Wei Wei will inspire people, both here in China and abroad, but as a martyr only. Until the millions and millions of Chinese who are barely making it have the luxury to consider freedom of speech and the role of the artist in society, fights like his will be glorious, emotional but, eventually, futile: He will most likely go to jail or leave the country and then Chinese touched by him will have to do some soul searching.
The best that can happen for China is that each Chinese inspired by his fight turns to his/her child and starts teaching …