Ai Weiwei, Stasiland and the Persistence of the Police State

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is the story of a world-famous artist who provoked the Chinese police state and, so far, seems to be getting away with it—if you don’t count being slugged by a Sichuan policeman in 2009 and almost dying of a subdural hematoma, being arrested in 2011 and held for 81 days and, now, being forbidden to leave the country and liable for a fine of almost $2 million for alleged tax evasion. His provocation: leading an effort to document and publicize the deaths of more than 5,000 schoolchildren, buried or crushed when their poorly constructed schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. And, on top of that, first demanding an investigation of the Sichuan police slugging and then suing. Plus photographing, filming and tweeting everything that happened to him along the way.

We see him, strong and confident, at his huge Beijing studio / residence, overseeing the production of his work, organizing the investigation of the student deaths. We see heartbreaking photographs of fields of small backpacks, dirty, torn open, their contents spilling out—all that’s left of the children who wore them to school that day.

And then we see Ai Weiwei after his release from prison, telling the clamoring journalists outside his studio/home that he can’t speak to them, that he’s on probation. We see the surveillance cameras mounted around his front door. The state has silenced him. Even though the documentary tells us that, within months, he was tweeting again. Even though he was released. Even though he’s still alive: he’s vulnerable. Ultimately, perhaps, as vulnerable as the owners of those backpacks, victims of the shoddy “tofu” construction permitted by a corrupt police state. As vulnerable as their parents, whose protests were also silenced by that state.

Anna Funder’s 2003 nonfiction book, Stasiland, tells the stories of some people who lived in another police state that was born the same year as Communist China, 1949, but was shorter-lived: the GDR—Communist East Germany, the state that disappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. An Australian living in the former East Berlin in the 1990’s, Funder tells the stories both of victims of the Stasi—the GDR’s secret police—and of unrepentant former Stasi employees. The victims’ stories are heartbreaking: two women, one of them Funder’s landlord, had been, for different reasons, systematically targeted by the state from the time they were teenagers. Their lives had been destroyed before they’d properly begun.

The GDR is well and truly gone, absorbed into West Germany. In Russia, on the other hand, the police state seems to have survived the fall of Communism. (You could, of course, make the case that Russia had been a police state before Communism, under the Tsars.) In Putin’s Russia, the toll of murdered journalists continues to mount. Members of Pussy Riot, a punk girl group, were recently arrested for a performance stunt in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral,

Pussy Riot
Igor Mukhin, Игорь Мухин at ru.wikipedia

during which they “pranced around in front of the golden Holy Doors leading to the altar, dancing, chanting and lip-syncing for what would later become a music video of a profane song in which they beseeched the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Mr. Putin.” Two of the three women are mothers of small children; all have been sentenced to two years in a penal colony—a form of punishment stretching back unbroken to Tsarist Russia. Under the Communists, the Tsarist system of slave-labor camps morphed into the gulag. Putin, of course, is an ex-KGB man, but there hasn’t been a lot of information available about his version of the penal colony.

Russian prisoners awaiting inspection before going to work at the western building section (at the 164th verst) of the Amur Cart Road, early 20th century,
Art studio of Moscow comradeship Obrazovaniye {{PD-1923}}

Of course, the police state has many other methods at its disposal. In her 1998 New Yorker profile of the great dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, “The Soloist,” Joan Acocella describes the working of the Russian Communist police state within the Kirov Ballet, where Baryshnikov began his career and became a star: cooperation with the regime was all; dancers were encouraged to inform on each other and the greatest ones were destroyed. Baryshnikov defected in 1974. Twelve years later, his friend Joseph Brodsky, the Russian poet who’d settled in the US after being expelled from Russia in 1972, was asked what would have happened to the dancer had he remained in Russia. “He’d be a ruin by now,” Brodsky replied.

Mikhail Baryshnikov 2010
Knight Foundation

The common thread in all these stories: relentless surveillance with the goal of crushing the slightest spark of individualism, which the ever-paranoid state immediately interprets as a danger to itself. Today in China some artists, as one says on-camera in the Ai Weiwei film, have learned to work within the boundaries of what’s permitted; Ai, we are told, is unusual for his willingness to challenge the state. Certainly for getting away with it; Liu Xiaobo, the writer, activist and 2010 Nobel Peace Prizewinner, remains in prison, as do many other writers and journalists.

George Orwell told us in his masterpiece, 1984—published in 1949, the birth year of the GDR and Communist China—that the police state would rather destroy than nurture. Funder’s profiles could be textbook examples of the Orwellian: one of the women, asked by her Stasi oppressor why she wasn’t working, told him she was unemployed because the Stasi had systematically prevented her from getting a job. The Stasi operative’s response: there was no unemployment in the GDR. In the police state, Orwellian doublespeak is the order of the day. The policeman never hit Ai Weiwei. Whatever the state says is so; if you challenge it, if you stray outside the lines, it will destroy you.

Ai’s Weiwei’ father was a poet and dissident who, after being imprisoned by Chang Kai-shek—and earning fame through the poems he wrote in prison—joined the Communists. His efforts were repaid in the usual way of police states: he was declared a “rightist” and broken by the Cultural Revolution. Ai and his brothers witnessed this. Ai, in his own way, continues his father’s dissent.

Maybe Ai’s fame will continue to protect him; maybe not. He’s unusual in the extent to which he documents everything he does or that happens to him, and involves others in both his art and his protests. Many people became involved in helping document the earthquake casualties in Sichuan; some of them are in the film. Ai himself uses his smart phone to photograph his beating by the Sichuan police. Later, as he attempts to demand justice, there is a fantastic scene when he and his supporters are shoved along the street outside police headquarters, while the police try to wrestle their cameras away from them—everything filmed and photographed by other supporters as well as those being shoved. Earlier, there is a hilarious scene in which a videographer films the policeman who is filming Ai and his supporters eating dinner at an outside restaurant table. The artist has devoted followers all over China; cash donations have poured in to help him pay his “tax bill”.

But the police state, right or left, is relentless until it’s destroyed: Nazi Germany and Communist East Germany are both gone, subsumed by a united, democratic Germany. Russia seems to have remained a police state throughout its history as a centralized state, whether Tsarist, Communist or capitalistic post-Communist. China continues to be a police state even as its old-fashioned Communist model morphs into the newer capitalist-Communist one, blithely transcending the oxymoronic nature of that combo.

So far, the state seems only to have been toying with Ai Weiwei. Let’s hope it doesn’t get serious.

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2 Responses to “Ai Weiwei, Stasiland and the Persistence of the Police State”

  1. June Says:

    Great Blog. Thanks Signe

  2. fstopnyc Says:

    Another insightfu blog post–as we’ve come to expect. You have a most interesting and uncanny way of tying seemingly diverse things together.

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