As critic-on-tap of the Chinese party-state Ai Weiwei was an irritant. Detained in 2011 on nebulous charges related to tax evasion (which he took pains to publicise) he was an inconvenience. Now globe-trotting once more, but this time as a Xi Jinping-era ‘new socialist man’, Weiwei is an object lesson.
In the following essay, Christian Sorace, a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Australian Centre on China in the World, considers the artist’s creative trajectory and self-realisation. Christian has previously written on Ai Weiwei and undertaken extensive research on the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake.
Our thanks to Lois Conner for the use of two recent photographic works: the Ladder from Ai Weiwei’s Beijing exhibition and a Stone Guardian Lion (Foo Dog 石狮) from Houhai, also in Beijing. — The Editors
The Chinese Communist Party has made Ai Weiwei 艾未未 into an international brand. In a live web-chat hosted by The Guardian on 11 September 2015, Ai joked: ‘ “Today, every day, people jump off their bicycles, little kids ask are you Ai Weiwei? I have become some sort of myth.” So I told the police: “Without you, I would never have become so noticeable as an artist.”’ In recent years, he has appeared in various guises in the global media: he is, in turn, China’s ‘most famous dissident’, its ‘most dangerous man’ and its ‘loudest rebel’.
Such sobriquets suggest that Ai stands apart from the system of which he is, now more than ever before, a quintessential product. Previously, I proposed that Ai’s political attitude of defiance and irreverence toward authority was tempered during the Cultural Revolution. As he said himself:
I was born in a society that emphasized critique, bestowing on self-criticism the highest value. Chairman Mao instructed us to carry out criticism and self-criticism, so we always looked at our surroundings and objects with a critical world-view. It could target any cultural organization, government, and also any person or system of power.
Over the years Weiwei would hone his penchant for criticism as he submitted the Chinese party-state apparatus to relentless attack; indeed, he seemed to be fulfilling Mao Zedong’s early Cultural Revolution injunction to ‘Bombard the Headquarters’ 炮打司令部. In light of interviews Ai has given during his recently concluded trip to Europe in July-September 2015, and in what looks like his accommodation with the Chinese authorities, it would appear that he has finally developed a more intimate understanding of self-criticism. I would even suggest that Ai has become yet another exemplar of the Janus-faced nature of Mao-style politics. Through his arrest and punishment, Weiwei has been rehabilitated and now enjoys a particularly Chinese form of redemption.
At times, Ai Weiwei’s aesthetic style recalls the work of Marcel Duchamp, famous for his ‘ready-made’ artworks, such as his use of found objects like a bicycle or a shovel. Duchamp was particularly famous for ‘Fountain’ (a urinal submitted as an art work to an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, and rejected). For his part, Ai Weiwei has focused on the more abstract, but persistent, found object of the Chinese party-state: violence. As the artist observed: ‘Duchamp had the bicycle wheel, Warhol had the image of Mao. I have a totalitarian regime. It is my readymade’.
Ai is himself just such a ‘found object’. In his self-creation he has placed himself at the centre of his work. One of the ways in which he has done this is via 24/7 self-surveillance and the tireless documentation of his life. In April 2012, for instance, Weiwei installed four surveillance cameras, ‘WeiweiCam’, that streamed live video feeds of him at home, offering his viewers a chance to ‘be just like the Chinese government’. By recording himself, he was mockingly reproducing the party-state surveillance of his life. In the process, he created a fan-base of voyeurs, one which he lured into sharing his addiction to provocation and retaliation.
Parting of the Ways
The event that fractured Ai’s relationship with the authorities was the earthquake that struck Wenchuan, Sichuan province, on 12 May 2008. The disaster resulted in over 87,000 fatalities. Although the government was lauded for its rapid response to the emergency and the media access it allowed to the disaster site, the temper of public opinion changed as evidence came to light that over seven thousand schoolrooms had collapsed during the quake due to shoddy construction methods and substandard materials. The killer schools were dubbed ‘tofu-dregs schoolhouses’ 豆腐渣校舍. At least five thousand children died as they sat in class on the afternoon of the earthquake. Grieving parents publicly protested against the government corruption that had led to the building of ‘tofu-dregs schoolhouses’ and called for an official investigation. They also demanded that the authorities publish the names of all the dead children.
Initially, the Sichuan authorities undertook to conduct an investigation into the tragedy. However, the central government, fearful that such a major public witch-hunt would mar the 2008 Beijing Olympics to be held in August that year, imposed a media ban on the subject. In contrast to the state’s opacity, Ai Weiwei took it upon himself to organise a team of researchers and volunteers to conduct a citizen’s investigation 公民调查 in the earthquake zone to gather the names and stories of the dead children. On the first anniversary of the earthquake, Ai declared:
We reject pardons, the erasure of your memory, cooperation, and compromise, because your troubles have latched onto us. Life is simple; it simply will not tolerate doubt.
During frequent follow-up trips to Sichuan in 2009, Ai recorded his encounters with local police officers and party bureaucrats who were evidently overwhelmed and frustrated by, as well as ill-equipped to handle, the presumptuous Beijing artist’s seemingly egomaniacal and irrational behaviour. In the encounters between the state and the artist, Ai ‘disturbed the peace’ by acting as if he was a citizen with rights that were respected by a state that he treated as if it was truly accountable to its citizens.
Ai’s confrontations with the authorities generated a volatile situation. In a blog entry from 28 May 2009 titled I’m Ready, Ai signalled his defiance:
Reject cynicism, reject cooperation, reject fear, and reject tea drinking [‘tea drinking’ 喝茶 is a euphemism for being questioned by the police — author], there is nothing to discuss. It’s the same old saying: don’t come looking for me again. I won’t cooperate. If you must come, bring your instruments of torture with you.
The artist’s relentless provocations demanded an official response, or a calculated reaction. Ai’s daring, and his attempts to rally others to stand up for their rights made him an artistic iconoclast with a political profile. If the authorities decided to silence Ai through imprisonment, he would become a martyr for the cause of free speech.
In August 2009, the artist traveled to Chengdu to act as a witness at the trial of Tan Zuoren 谭作人, a local Sichuan writer who had been arrested for supposedly ‘inciting the subversion of state power’ 煽动颠覆国家政权. Tan had the temerity to conduct his own investigation into toufu-dregs schoolhouses and, as a result, was arrested for his efforts.
In the early hours of 12 August 2009 (the day of Tan’s trial), Ai was accosted by police in his hotel room and badly beaten. He suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and was forced to travel overseas for treatment. This was something else that he transformed into art: the cell-phone selfie of him in a Munich hospital room holding a bag of fluid that he said had been drained from his skull went viral on the Internet.
Back in China not long after this, on 3 April 2011, Weiwei was detained at the Beijing International Airport while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong. He was held in solitary confinement for eighty-one days while the authorities allegedly amassed evidence of his having evaded taxes. Ai’s detention prompted a wave of international outrage, demonstrations of solidarity, and protests.
Following his release, again Ai made work that reflected his experience: he commissioned artisans to build six fibreglass dioramas of his prison cell. To his avid global audience, it was an invitation to accompany him (from a safe remove) into the claustrophobic recesses of state power.
Was this the crowning achievement of Weiwei’s protests against the party-state or the dead-end of a certain aesthetic trajectory? During his post-traumatic overseas sojourn, Ai said the following:
For a moment I felt I’m like a chess player and I’m going to win the game. I no longer think that way. I haven’t lost the confidence but if the table is going to be overthrown and you’re going to be put in a dark basement, then you think again about the game.
After solitary confinement, where else was there to go?
In and Out of the Dark
On 23 June 2011, when Ai was allowed to return home released on bail, the artist appeared uncharacteristically reticent in front of the crowd of international reporters who had gathered outside his house. Before withdrawing inside, Ai apologised: ‘I’m sorry I can’t (talk), I am on probation, please understand’. Prior to his arrest, Ai Weiwei seemed immune to government threats and reprisals. In a blog post from November 2009, he said:
What can they do to me? Nothing more than to banish, kidnap, or imprison me. Perhaps they could fabricate my disappearance into thin air, but they don’t have any creativity or imagination, and they lack both joy and the ability to fly. This kind of political organization is pitiful.
According to the official Xinhua News Agency, Ai was released ‘because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from.’ Although it is common for international academics and commentators to dismiss the confession/self-criticism in the post-Mao era as nothing more than a pro forma act demanded of victims of state power, I would suggest that it is still a potent political tool by which the rough edges of individuality are plied into the smooth surfaces of conformity. Confessions do not require inner conviction to be effective, either for the penitent sinner or their audience.
Out in the open once more, where could Ai Weiwei hide? Of course, he could have turned his confession into a work of art, continued to escalate his confrontation with the state, returned to jail, or ended up being disappeared. Such an imagined end-game seemed to intensify the aura surrounding Ai Weiwei as China’s ‘dissident artist’ (in captivity).
In response to Ai’s 2011 disappearance, the Berlin-based Liaoning artist He Xiangyu 何翔宇 made a life-size sculpture in the doughy form of Weiwei out of plastic and fibreglass with real human hair. He placed this prone corpse face down on display at the Künstlerhaus Schloß Balmoral in Bad Ems, Germany. He titled the work ‘The Death of Marat’ after a noted painting by Jacques-Louis David made in 1793. Naming the sculpture after David’s painting of the murder of the French revolutionary was a significant gesture. According to the art historian TJ Clark, David ‘saw in the cult of Marat the first forms of a liturgy and ritual in which the truths of the Revolution itself would be made flesh — People, Nation, Virtue, Reason, Liberty’. By situating Ai as an heir to the legacy of Marat, He Xiangyu was using his sculpture to call attention to a salient difference between the two figures: Ai’s ‘liturgy and ritual’ lacked a community of believers. Also, Ai was still alive.
Ai Weiwei is now in an awkward position: he has survived his own martyrdom. Speaking to The New York Review of Books in September 2015, he admitted: ‘[O]nce your opinions are not taken seriously, you’ll hurt yourself’, which I interpret to mean that without the power, support and momentum of a political or media movement, the artist’s strategy to arouse and influence has become at best futile, at worst suicidal. Elsewhere he declared that, although he admires the Tibetan monks who have burnt themselves to death in protest against Chinese state policies, he does not want to emulate them: ‘I’d never set myself on fire nor touch a high-voltage cable. My life is about more than just “resistance”.’ Indeed, since having touched the high-voltage cable of state power, Ai has decided to keep his hands to himself. He now states baldly: ‘All I ask for is a normal life’.
A Normal Life
For a person as famous internationally and politically sensitive in China as Ai Weiwei, it is not clear just what a normal life might mean. Despite his own addiction to attention, Ai has responded with irritation to his audience’s continued demand that he play the role of ‘Chinese dissident artist’ (especially when everyone knows and morbidly anticipates the inevitable denouement of that role). ‘Why should I be the old Ai Weiwei?’, he asked in response to suggestions that his stance has softened in recent months. ‘The attitude of these people is strange’, he declares. ‘Don’t they crave some sort of change? Don’t I have any sort of personal freedom? These people know nothing about the Ai Weiwei from before and even less about today’s Ai Weiwei’.
Ai’s defensiveness calls to mind the Chinese folktale of the man who buried three hundred taels of silver and, in order to keep thieves from finding it, put up a sign: ‘There’s no three hundred taels of silver here’ 此地无银三百两. Ai’s insistence on his ‘personal freedom’ and his seemingly neo-liberal celebration of ‘change’ pinpoints perhaps the coordinates of his particular kind of un-freedom: Ai is caught between the conflicting demands of his international audience (and a sensation-hungry media) for him to ‘remain Weiwei’ and an even stronger imperative emanating from the Chinese authorities to become, and remain, a ‘new Weiwei’.
Ai’s own demand to be allowed to live a ‘normal life’ seems disingenuous. Notoriety and safety are incompatible bedfellows, especially since one of the conditions for his freedom has been an undertaking he made to ‘not discuss politics’, the very thing that international Ai addicts have come to crave. In speaking to The New York Review of Books he also said: ‘I am alive. It’s a symbol of my life. If I don’t talk about it [politics] then it means I am dead. I try to talk less because in China we have an expression [from Confucius] called bu zai qi wei bu mou qi zheng [不在其位不谋其政 “don’t meddle in affairs that are not part of your position”].’ By ‘speaking less’ will Ai be somehow ‘less alive’? In reality, Ai is as voluble as ever, it’s just that what he has to say is different.
Ai’s reorientation includes a reconsideration of the relationship between art and politics. Now, rather than being antagonists as of old, the artist and state are partners in a pact of mutual understanding. ‘Although they’re [the party-state] authoritarian, they’re rational’, Ai declares. ‘We should build trust. Rationality is our common treasure.' In contrast to his previous use of art as a catalogue of state violence, it is now a means by which the artist and state can find common cause:
I am an artist. Communication is important to make the other side understand what you’re doing… . In the past years I have made a lot of progress in that direction. And they [the authorities] are showing a positive attitude towards me.
Ai’s ‘new normal’ means that his past must be re-worked into a narrative of progress along a path to mutual understanding with the party-state. In an interview with Jörg Häntztschel of Süddeutsche Zeitung on 6 August 2015, he goes so far as to say:
My case is still very sensitive to them. But it’s different from before. Much more open. There is even a very small space for discussion… . Yes, there are some cases where the authorities act quite totalitarian. But it’s very different from when I was detained. Today, when they detain you, they come with arrest orders. Courts decide what kind of treatment these people will get. They follow procedures. And if there is not enough proof they release you. These tactics are not as unlawful as a few years ago. Of course the police have the right to arrest you if they think you’re suspicious. Although I think this is also used as a tactic to control these people.
On 13 August 2015, journalists for the weekly Die Zeit challenged Ai’s positive assessment of China’s commitment to the rule of law by calling his attention to the detention of over 200 lawyers the previous month, one of whom was Zhou Feng, Die Zeit‘s own lawyer. Ai responded by saying he was not familiar with individual cases and could not possibly comment. He insisted, however, that the general situation has improved over the past several years, especially when compared with the Mao era. This kind of rhetorical evasion is frequently employed by party-state apparatchiks. And, as if reading from a script (one of the kind that he had previously lambasted with relish), he went on to say:
If you look at the bigger picture, any country or political system has to preserve its stability. Arresting a few people is not a big deal. There are far worse things. My father’s generation, just a few decades ago, saw hundreds of thousands of people, who sacrificed themselves for the revolution, suddenly declared spies and traitors who were then put to death … . There’s no point crying about getting locked up for one or two days. For me it’s just normal. This normal state of affairs arises from a political power, which wants to maintain its position of power. They have no other choice.
Is Ai updating his understanding of the regime based on a consideration of changing conditions and new facts previously unavailable to him or, in the new normal of his post-incarceration life, is he just willing to see the old mechanisms of censorship and repression in a more generous light?
Ai Weiwei Returns
On 8 June 2015, the official-affiliated tabloid The Global Times 环球时报 published a review of Ai’s ‘first’ solo exhibition in China held from 8 June to 6 September at the Tang Contemporary Art Center and Galleria Continua, both in Beijing’s 798 Art District. The title of the review, ‘Ai Weiwei Returns’, suggested that the arrant artist was a prodigal son. After a stretch in rehab, it would seem that Ai was now ready to re-enter the mainstream. In his own words, he only wanted ‘to say and do things that benefit society’.
The Global Times described Ai’s grand Beijing opening as a ‘new start’, an opportunity for the artist to earn the acclaim of the Chinese people. In conclusion, the paper patronisingly offered that: ‘perhaps it’s time to turn over the page on Ai’s political controversy.’
Again, on 8 August 2015, an editorial in The Global Times commended the artist for his patriotism while travelling in Europe:
This time Ai seemed to have broken out of the label of his role [as dissident]. He opened his heart to the media. It has surprised many, because he did not complain a lot about what he has ‘suffered’ in China, as the Western media expected.
Weiwei addicts everywhere yearn for another hit of the good stuff. Back in China, however, Ai, like so many creative men and women before him, has learnt about the workings of party power the hard way: for the artist to earn the right to address ‘the People’, he or she must first and foremost have nothing of their own to say.
* The author would like to thank Geremie Barmé for his invitation to write this essay, and for his comprehensive editorial guidance and suggestions.
 Ai Weiwei, ‘Ai Weiwei webchat – as it happened’, The Guardian, 11 September 2011.
 Matt Schiavenza, ‘Ai Weiwei, China’s Useful Dissident’, The Atlantic, 18 March 2013.
 Mark Stevens, ‘Is Ai Weiwei China’s Most Dangerous Man?’, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2012.
 Jeffrey Marlow, ‘A Rare Visit With Ai Weiwei, China’s Loudest Rebel’, Wired, 29 January 2014.
 Christian Sorace, ‘China’s Last Communist: Ai Weiwei’, Critical Inquiry, vol.40, no.2 (Winter 2014): 396-419.
 Ai Weiwei, Time and Place 此时此地, Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press 广西师范大学出版社, 2010, p.124.
 From a conversation between Ai Weiwei and Philip Tinari, 2 December 2009, Miami Beach, in Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn, Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE, exhibition catalogue, Pennsylvania: Arcadia University Art Gallery, 2010, p.39.
 Kyle Chayka, ‘Now You Can Be Just Like the Chinese Government! Ai Weiwei Launches a Studio Webcam’, ArtInfo, 2 April 2012. Within days, ‘WeiweiCam’ was shut down by the authorities.
 James Daniell, ‘Sichuan 2008: A disaster on an immense scale’, BBC News, last updated in May 2013.
 For an analysis of how the Communist Party’s underlying political rationality shaped their approach to post-earthquake reconstruction and social stability, see Christian Sorace, ‘The Communist Party’s Miracle? The Alchemy of Turning Post-Disaster Reconstruction into Great Leap Development’, Comparative Politics, vol.47, no.4 (July 2015): 479-498. For an overview of the reconstruction process, see Christian Sorace, ‘China’s Vision for Developing Sichuan’s Post-Earthquake Countryside: Turning Unruly Peasants into Grateful Urban Citizens’, The China Quarterly, vol.218 (June 2014): 404-427.
 Editorial, ‘Return to Repression’, The Washington Post, 22 June 2008.
 Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006–2009, translated and edited by Lee Ambrozy, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011, p.225.
 ‘Disturbing the Peace’ 老妈蹄花 can be viewed online here; and, for a discussion of Ai Weiwei’s documentary filmmaking, see JP Sniadecki, ‘Documentary Is Just One of My Tools: The Digital Film Activism of Ai Weiwei’, cinema scope, Issue 49.
 Ai, Ai Weiwei’s Blog, p.230.
 For information on the Tan Zuoren’s case, see Tania Branigan, ‘China Jails Investigator into Sichuan Earthquake Schools’, The Guardian, 9 February 2010; for a translation of the case against him, see ‘Indictment Against Activist Tan Zuoren’, China Digital Times, 4 August 2009; and, on his subsequent release, see ‘Chinese Earthquake Activist Tan Zuoren Released after Five-year Prison Term’, The Guardian, 27 March 2014. See also Tan’s essay: ‘Longmen Mountains: please testify on behalf of the children of Beichuan’ 龙门山：请为北川孩子们作证, 19 August 2008 [in author’s possession, available upon request].
 Katherine Grube, ‘Ai Weiwei Hospitalized After Beating By Chinese Police‘, Art AsiaPacific, November/December 2009.
 For the international protests over Ai Weiwei’s arrest, see, for example, Geremie R Barmé, ‘A View on Ai Weiwei’s Exit’, The China Beat, 27 April 2011; David Ng, ‘LACMA, other museums demand release of Ai Weiwei in petition‘, Los Angeles Times, 8 April 2011; and, ‘Demonstrations Demand Ai Weiwei Freedom‘, Artnet News, 18 April 2011. For a discussion of artworks created in response to Ai’s arrest, see Sorace, ‘China’s Last Communist’, pp.415-417.
 Edward Wong, ‘An Artist Depicts His Demons’, The New York Times, 26 May 2013.
 Ai Weiwei quoted in Michael Prodger, ‘Ai Weiwei – from criminal to art-world superstar’, The Guardian, 12 September 2015.
 Melissa Bell, ‘Ai Weiwei, Chinese Artist, Released’, The Washington Post, 22 June 2011.
 Ai, Ai Weiwei’s Blog, p.237.
 Xinhua, ‘Ai Weiwei Released on Bail’, 22 June 2011.
 Jonathan Mirsky, ‘China’s Political Prisoners: True Confessions?‘, The New York Review of Books, 30 June 2011.
 For an account of ‘necroresistance’ which is defined as the process of turning one’s life into a weapon against the state (written in the context of a fast-to-the-death movement in Turkey) see, Banu Bargu, Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
 Maura Judkis, ‘ “Dead” Ai Weiwei sculpture scares German town’, The Washington Post, 3 November 2011.
 TJ Clark, ‘Painting in the Year Two’, Representations, no.47 (Summer 1994): 28–29.
 Ian Johnson, ‘ “I try to Talk Less”: A Conversation with Ai Weiwei and Liao Yiwu’, The New York Review of Books, 12 September 2015.
 Ai’s political strategy counted on the power of digital technologies not only to expose state violence but also to mobilise the Chinese public against it. During his live Guardian web-chat on 11 September 2015 [Note 1], Ai reflected: ‘I was talking on Twitter 24 hours a day in 2009, after they shut off my blog and before I got arrested, and for a moment I had the illusion that I would generate a revolution by myself. It was a riot.’ His claim that he would generate a revolution by himself indicates that he assumed that constant digital communication would in and of itself create a networked civil society powerful enough to challenge state power. In the same webchat, Ai bluntly conceded failure: ‘Censorship works: they [the Chinese public] have never heard of me, or heard of the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.’ Despite garnering international acclaim, his art failed to attract the domestic audience which was necessary for him to have some political impact. One day later, in a conversation with Ian Johnson and Liao Yiwu [Note 28], Ai emphasised his powerlessness: ‘History has to have a certain number of people who recognize it. But no one recognizes what we do because we can’t reach the public sphere. So it has no influence. It has no influence on education. It has no use in our public memory.’
 Ai Weiwei quoted in ‘There’s no point crying’. Ai seems to have backed down from his previous position that: ‘as far as one’s life is concerned, the highest purpose would be to sacrifice yourself for integrity. Similarly, there is no greater disgrace than being too weak to make such a sacrifice, or living simply for the sake of being alive’. From Ai, Ai Weiwei’s Blog, p.93.
 Ai Weiwei quoted in ‘I try to Talk Less’.
 Ibid. [Ai’s used of this famous line from the Confucian Analects is deceptive: ‘position’ 位 means an official position or role, something Ai never had. — Ed.]
 Ai Weiwei quoted in ‘All I ask for is a normal life’.
 Ai Weiwei quoted in ‘There’s no point crying’.
 According to The New York Times, in July 2015 ‘more than 200 lawyers and associates have been detained, with 20 still in custody. Some have been paraded on television making humiliating confessions or portrayed as rabble-rousing thugs’. Andrew Jacobs and Chris Buckley, ‘China Targeting Rights Lawyers in a Crackdown’, The New York Times, 22 July 2015; also see Nancy Tang, Keith Hand, Eva Pils, Taisu Zhang, Thomas Kellog, ‘China’s “Rule by Law” Takes an Ugly Turn’, ChinaFile, 14 July 2015.
 For an account of The Global Times, including a selection of editorials, see ‘The Global Times (Huanqiu shibao 环球时报) in Retrospect’, China Story Yearbook 2013.
 ‘Ai Weiwei Returns’, The Global Times, 8 June 2015.
 Ai Weiwei quoted in ‘All I ask for is a normal life’.
 ‘Ai’s Latest Exhibition may Herald New Start’, The Global Times, 11 June 2015.
 ‘West Unhappy when Ai Softens Criticism’, The Global Times, 8 August 2015.