“I refuse to accept the idea that the state’s authority can’t be opposed, challenged, or interrogated. In the face of power, I would always be at a disadvantage, I knew, but I was a born contrarian, and there’s no other way for me to live except by taking an oppositional stance,” Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous artist and activist in exile, wrote in 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, an autobiography published in November.
It is this kind of clarity and resolve about how to live one’s life that brought suffering to Ai while at the same time propelling him to international stardom. As I read the book, I thought back to the good, not-so-old days for human rights activism in China. It is sad to think that, due to the rapidly worsening information environment in the country, most of today’s young people have never heard of Ai, a central figure in the movement for freedom and justice just a decade or two ago. Ai also helped design the Bird’s Nest, a landmark sports stadium in Beijing built for the 2008 Summer Olympics Games
Aside from a few brief exchanges, I don’t know Ai Weiwei. I’m just one of the many Chinese netizens who have followed his art, activism, and online streams of consciousness—Ai tweets relentlessly—since the early 2000s. But reading his book, I found myself in numerous pages.
In the summer of 2009, to challenge the official death toll of students who perished in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to shoddily constructed schools, Ai called on volunteers to join him to launch their own investigation. “Close to one hundred people volunteered to take part,” Ai wrote. As a 21-year-old, I was one of them. Yet my parents vehemently opposed the trip. I then wrote to Ai, “Teacher Ai [‘teacher’ is an honorific in Chinese], I am so sorry, my parents wouldn’t allow me to join you.” Ai wrote back, “No worries. Listen to your parents. They did what is best for you.”
My parents very likely saved me from vicious police attacks. Ai and his volunteers visited thousands of families who lost their children in the earthquake and recorded their details. For that, they were harassed, detained, and beaten by the police. The impact of the beating on Ai was so severe that he had to undergo emergency brain surgery.
In late 2010, Shanghai authorities informed Ai that his newly built art studio was slated to be demolished. In protest, Ai called on his supporters to hold a River Crab Feast to give the studio a formal sendoff. “River crab” is a euphemism for censorship in China, because it sounds like the word for “harmony,” in the interest of which the Chinese government claims it must control content on the Internet. “While I was a prisoner in my own home, eight hundred other people managed to attend the River Crab Feast, hosted by my assistants. There they consumed some three thousand crabs, played guitar, sang, and chatted—all the while posting their photos and videos online, in celebration of these little acts of defiance,” Ai writes. Among the 800 people was a close friend of mine. I was at his home when the police paid a visit after he said online that he was going to the feast. My friend went anyway.
In February 2011, some anonymous Twitter accounts appealed to people in China to emulate the Arab Spring uprisings and start a revolution. While the call only resulted in small gatherings of curious onlookers in Beijing and several other cities, the authorities reacted by rounding up over a hundred of the country’s most outspoken critics, including Ai. In the book, Ai writes about the 81-day secret detention he went through. Many of the details I can relate to because I too got swallowed into China’s vast black hole–like justice system for the same nonexistent “revolution,” albeit for only three days because of my “nobody” status.
Then came Xi Jinping’s ascendance to power in late 2012. His tenure has been marked by drastically scaled-up control of all aspects of society, and harsh crackdowns on human rights activism. Many in China now fear that Xi’s authoritarianism is pushing the country toward a more closed-minded, brutal future that resembles the Party’s Maoist roots. In the book, Ai chronicled his harsh childhood living in a Mao era labor camp in Xinjiang with his father, famed poet Ai Qing; Ai Weiwei is grimly qualified to speak about both periods.
I am from a village in Zhejiang province, a daughter of farmers. Without the relatively free Internet in the 2000s, and the many free-spirited writers, journalists, lawyers, and artists like Ai who were eager to engage with young people, I would not have become who I am now. I mourn for the young people today, as few will have someone to tell them to read banned books they have never heard of, or to enjoy the companionship of like-minded people in activities like the River Crab Feast.
Ai eventually left China, and I did, too. Sometimes when I am sitting in my comfortable New York City office overlooking the East River, I am restless. I wish I were in China—handing out anti–domestic violence pamphlets to passersby, accompanying migrant workers to ask company owners why the workers have not been paid, or meeting up with activists to ramble on about the future. But that China is gone. At moments of longing, I would hum the verse of Ai Qing’s most famous poem, taught in school to all children in China, “Why are my eyes always brimming with tears? Because I love this land so deeply.”
Shortly after Ai settled in Germany in 2015, he started to work on projects related to the global refugee crisis. “I want to forget about China and do something which surprises me,” he said in a 2015 interview. “Why do I have to be labeled? I’m not a car seller. Nothing can replace freedom, and that’s a challenge, and I’m ready for that.” In 2020, in radically different circumstances for me, Ai, and China, our paths crossed again when he partnered with Human Rights Watch on a Covid-19 mask project to benefit humanitarian action globally.
Throughout the book, one can see how Ai keeps reinventing himself according to the circumstances of the time. Maybe I should take a page from him, as many of my peers already have: Overseas-based Chinese feminists are now active participants in the women’s rights movement in their adopted countries, and many others have joined racial justice initiatives around the globe.
Despite the constant metamorphosis, one thing that has never changed for Ai is his commitment to freedom and the price he is willing to pay for it. Ai closes the book with this idea: “For me, the worst thing would be to lose the capacity for free expression, for that would mean losing the motivation to recognize the value of life and make choices accordingly. For me, there is no other road I can take.” Hopefully, Teacher Ai knows he is not alone on that road.