Let a Hundred Volunteers Bloom: What a New Documentary on Ai Weiwei Reveals About Activism in China

October 13, 2012

Foreign Affairs:

As China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition begins in Beijing next month, the government’s treatment of high-profile critics such as the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo will invariably garner attention inside the country and abroad. The persecution of such dissidents certainly merits discussion, but it must not obscure a larger phenomenon: the emergence of widespread populist activism in China.

At first, Alison Klayman’s new documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,”seems to fit this perspective, by focusing on the singular work, political activism, and daily life of Ai Weiwei, the world-famous Beijing-based artist and outspoken government critic. In raising subjects that are usually airbrushed from the Chinese media, the film contains much that the Chinese leadership will dislike. It highlights Ai’s international celebrity and his ability to mobilize large numbers of people through social media, the naked brutality of the Chinese police, and the still-debilitating aftereffects of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

But “Never Sorry” does much more than call attention to the work of Ai and the well-known artists, writers, and critics he interacts with. The most poignant aspect of the documentary — and the one that senior Chinese leaders would find most alarming — is expressed by a woman who had volunteered with a project that Ai led to compile the names of schoolchildren who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake when their shoddily constructed schools collapsed. She recalls how, when the authorities asked her whom she was working for, she replied, “We were all volunteers, there on our own. The way I see it, we weren’t there as anybody’s ‘people.’ ”

The Chinese government does tolerate some state-dictated volunteerism; the Chinese Ministry of Internal Affairs had registered more than 10,000 civil society groups by 2011. When it serves the political interests of the Communist Party or the government, popular mobilizing is fine, as is the case with the periodic virulent anti-Japanese manifestations.

But the leadership perceives virtually all other forms of independent organizing as a threat. Despite this, broad public participation in activist causes has become one of the most potent political dynamics in China today. “Never Sorry” unveils some of these acts of defiance, calling attention to the hundreds of people who attended a party for Ai before authorities demolished his Shanghai studio and to the countless volunteers who helped compile the list of children killed in the earthquake. As China’s new leaders take control next month, the Communist Party will surely continue to prioritize social stability over much-needed political reforms. Absent such changes, however, Chinese citizens’ growing awareness of their rights and their willingness to take action in the public sphere will challenge that quest.

EVOLUTIONARY ZEAL

In the aftermath of Mao’s 1966–76 Cultural Revolution, when millions of Chinese were forced to participate in political campaigns that involved the physical abuse, incarceration, and public humiliation of those perceived to be disloyal to the state, many in China sought to avoid critical contact with the government. But within a decade, students, workers, and others came together to demand political reform. They wrote pro-democracy essays, engaged in increasingly public debates, and aired their complaints and protests on a stretch of brick wall in Beijing that came to be known as Democracy Wall. The government responded with a crackdown, culminating in the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Then, over the course of the 1990s, the first truly independent civil society organizations formed, but the state ensured that they gained no significant following. Some individual dissidents, such as Wei Jingsheng, Rebiya Kadeer, and the Dalai Lama, became reasonably well-known internationally, but as a result of domestic censorship, they were either unheard of or demonized inside the country. Many in China had well-developed views on the government and how it functioned, but the avenues for debate were narrow and dangerous.

In the last decade, the ground has shifted, and more people in China sense that they can influence the government. It is no longer necessarily dangerous to complain about the party at the dinner table. Some modest legal reforms have in theory granted people greater access to information. Despite the so-called Great Firewall, which the government created to censor the Internet, there are now more than 500 million Web users in China. This power was demonstrated by the online circulation of Charter ’08, a pro-democracy manifesto issued 20 years after the 1989 crackdown that garnered over 10,000 signatures in a matter of weeks and led to Liu Xiaobo’s 11-year prison sentence on charges of “incitement to subvert state power.” Because Beijing can no longer wholly control information or monitor all exchanges, people can learn about and discuss issues that in the past would have been unknowable…

Read it all.

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