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Freedom, and Free Publicity, for Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei

Posted by Author on November 9, 2010

Jonathan Shieber, Via Wall Street Journal, Nov. 8, 2010 –

After two days under temporary house arrest, the Chinese activist and artist Ai Wei Wei has been freed, according to posts on the artist’s own Twitter feed.

The detention of Ai, one of China’s best known and most provocative artists, came before he was scheduled to attend a rally he organized in Shanghai over the weekend to “celebrate” the municipal government’s decision to tear down a studio municipal officials had reportedly asked him to build.

The event was meant as a provocation. Ai dubbed it a “river crab” party – a reference to a local Shanghainese delicacy, now in season, but also a homophone for the word for “harmony” in Mandarin. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have made the creation of a “harmonious society” a central theme of their rule.
To make good on the name, the artist said he was planning to serve 10,000 river crabs to his guests.

Two years ago, the Shanghai government had invited Ai to build the studio to help develop an arts district that it was hoping to create in the city, Ai told London’s “The Daily Telegraph” in an interview last week. According to the Telegraph, the Shanghai municipal government had issued an order to demolish the site because Ai had failed to apply to the local authorities in advance for a project development license. Ai speculated that the demolition has more to do with his activism than any permitting problems.

Something of an enfant terrible, Ai has irritated authorities in China with high profile criticisms of everything from tainted food products to the deaths of hundreds of schoolchildren in the Sichuan earthquake. Among his moves in Shanghai was to film a documentary about the conviction and execution of Yang Jia, a Beijing man who killed several people in an attack on a Shanghai police station after being arrested and allegedly beaten by police for stealing a bicycle. Still, it’s not clear exactly why authorities ordered the studio demolished.

Shanghai had been nervous about dissent in recent months as it hosted the 2010 World Expo. In late May, for instance, Shanghai police shut an art show that showed how the Communist Party doctored photos even after the show had toured the nation. Last Sunday, on the final day of the Expo, organizers of a gay “pub crawl” said police ordered bars not to participate and the event was cancelled.

It’s also not clear what authorities gained by detaining Ai. According to a report on Danwei, the river crab banquet went on despite the artist’s absence (see photos here ). If anything, the story of Ai’s house arrest seems to have drawn more attention to the event, at least in the international press, than it would have otherwise enjoyed.

Wall Street Journal

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