Review of the Cultura21 event “Can Artists Change China?”

On June 16th, Cultura21 – together with partners – invited panelists with broad experience and knowledge concerning the art sector and the human rights situation in China for a discussion around the arrest of Ai Weiwei. The event was attended by more than a hundred people of all ages.

See also: Press articles on the event

One week after the event, on Wednesday June 22nd, we were very glad to hear about Ai Weiwei’s release, almost three months after the arrest at the Beijing Capital Airport.

But many questions remain unanswered – also by exceptionally quiet Ai Weiwei. The Chinese authorities’ statement that Ai Weiwei’s release is related to “his good attitude in confessing his crimes” (tax evasion) signals the ongoing threat of potential criminal prosecution.  Also, it must be kept in mind, that many human rights defenders and activists who were arrested or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their freedoms of expression, association, and assembly (rights that are guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution and international human rights law) still remain imprisoned. Read more (FIDH press release)

The topics dicussed on June 16th at Leuphana University Lüneburg remain of greatest actuality. In the following, please find a review of the debate “Can Artists Change China?”, synthesized by the FIDH in collaboration with Cultura21:

International Attention

The panelists debated the role of Ai Weiwei and the international media. “He may be famous in the West but within China his popularity/name-recognition is limited, which is also due to censorship”, said documenta12 director Roger Buergel. The panelists agreed that the Western media portrayal of Ai Weiwei is overly simple as it does not address the complexities of the art world in China or the human rights situation. However, it was pointed out that the media’s attention on Ai Weiwei does not alleviate the need to draw attention to the bigger picture of the current crackdown on many human rights activists.

Crossing the red lines

Ai Weiwei’s disappearance demonstrated that no one is safe from the strong arm of the government if he or she criticizes the government publicly and on issues considered ‘very sensitive’ by the authorities, such as the issue of shoddy construction in Sichuan which was deemed responsible for the deaths of thousands of students in the 2008 earthquake. The frustration and discontent of a majority of the Chinese population in the face of economic inequality and social injustice is boiling over in many ways, and in Ai Weiwei such anger finds an outlet that has tremendous reach in the international community (thus making him an increasing threat to the regime).

Spurious claims of economic growth as a human rights achievement

The Chinese government often argues that it has lifted millions out of poverty and that the Chinese people are freer now than ever before. Such propagandistic arguments mask the reality that the increasing wealth of the state strengthen the government’s ability to control domestic unrest and activism. It has been reported that for the first time spendings on public security have exceeded those of national defense/military. Even in the current context of aggregate economic growth, there are thousands of public demonstrations per year recorded.

Role of artists in social transformation

Artists take great risks to engage themselves in social activism, but they are a minority among the various groups that advocate for human rights and rule of law. Not all artists take political positions and many do not. Many artists are elitist and urban-based and their main objective is fame and profits. Some who wish to make political statements through their art also face other real-life restraints, such as finances. Foreign funding to domestic institutions, including NGOs, is heavily scrutinized, manipulated and restricted by the authorities.

Role of the international community

There is a need to better understand the complexities in China in order for external actions and advocacy be effective. There is worry that external demands may be seen as ‘colonial’ and would certainly be spinned this way by the Chinese government to generate nationalistic support among the population. On the other hand, silence is not an option. In fact, strong public outcry, including rumors that Ai has been tortured, may have forced the government to let his wife see him and prove that his physical condition was fine.

This post is also available in: German