Ai Weiwei: “Gangsters in the Government”

[This is an original translation of an essay from Ai Weiwei’s blog written by Yang Licai, one of Ai Weiwei’s volunteers. Previously, we’ve reported on Ai Weiwei’s “Citizens’ Investigation” project, in which he is attempting to compile the names of students killed in the Sichuan earthquake, and the roadblocks that seem to keep getting thrown in front of him by government officials. In this essay, his volunteer goes into much more depth, as well as offers his own opinions about the motivation of the officials and the system behind them. It’s long, but we strongly urge you to read all of it, it’s fascinating.]

UPDATE: Thanks to Global Voices Online for pointing out this article is actually by Yang Licai, one of Ai Weiwei’s volunteers on the project. Since the essay was on Ai’s blog, I didn’t even think to look, but there’s an author attribution at the bottom of the piece. Sorry for the confusion.

UPDATE 2: The original post is no longer available on Ai Weiwei’s blog. Whether that’s self-censorship, Sina censorship, or something worse is unclear. In any event, I have the original Chinese text, those interested in reading it are free to email me (I don’t want to post it here for fear of our site getting blocked in China).

If hoodlums and legal gangsters* could control things**, if they could become police officers, enter the government, and run schools, what would that be like?

In the town of Taiping, I was besieged by a group of government and middle school officials; at the police substation in the town’s outskirts, I was forcibly searched and some things were taken from me; on a rainy night four strangers dragged me into a car and told me they were taking me to “you’ll know when you get there”; I was besieged again by officials in Taiping, with many students and parents watching; I reported [these things] to 110 [emergency phone number] but no police were sent; I was beaten and robbed [by people] under the direction of the school president with students watching. I reported this repeatedly to 110 but no police came. City PSB official Zhang Xing illegally refused to provide the “Report of Offense to Police Superintendent Registration Form” and also refused to provide the paperwork necessary for an appeal; city education bureau leader Wang Yangjin said: the names of the students who died on 5/12 [the earthquake] are still a state secret and the information won’t be revealed until the government reveals it.

Ai Weiwei
These few days experience in Jiangyou and Taiping make Jiangyou and Taiping seem like an autonomous, self-governed region on Mars. There is a “Taiping township” but no “peace”***, there are humans but no “human rights”, there are law enforcement officials but no laws. In Jiangyou there are government officials, justice department officials, education department officials and even the school janitor, who make impromptu self-governing ‘laws’ and announce them as they are needed. In my experience, this is not uncommon; for example, there’s the “Government officials obstructing pedestrians don’t need to produce identification” law, the “police needn’t provide identification when carrying out public affairs missions” law, the “wearing a police uniform is the same as providing ID” law, the “don’t need to provide a cause to body search” law, the “if we say you’re breaking the law then you’re breaking the law” law, the “when we get there you’ll know [where we’re taking you]” law, the “here you can’t take photographs” law, the “you can’t leave” law, the “we’ll beat you if you don’t come with us” law, the “we don’t have the paperwork you need to file reports or appeals” law, etc. etc.

These laws are indeed effective, I was shocked to discover that the “gangsters and legal gangsters” had won a great victory. But actually it’s more complex than that; these people are all regular Chinese citizens, not professional criminals or expert scoundrels. In comparing them, I realized it’s not that my own rights have decreased, it’s that the rights they’re granted as representatives of the government allow them, those tramplers individual rights, to ravage and encroach on [my rights].


In Jiangyou, those obstructing my survey first threaten and intimidate, saying things like “illegal survey”, “ulterior motives”, “hurting the feelings of people in a disaster area”, “uncovering the scars of the people in a disaster area”, “disrupting social order”, “without legal procedure”, etc. Once, they framed me when I was outside the school speaking to two female students, people walking by ignored the facts in front of their eyes and reported to the head of the school that I had [forcibly] taken the two students outside school grounds and what was I doing anyway. When I protested with the facts, they eased up the atmosphere and moved on to their second technique, “remonstrating with good intentions” and saying they trusted me fully. They said we know you’ve come a long way, and with good intentions, but your survey is useless, this sort of thing should be conducted by the government, individuals don’t have the right to do it, you must trust the government, and so on. This second approach was also ineffective, which led to the third technique: sluggishness, passing the buck, nitpicking, hiding whatever can be hidden and avoiding whatever can be avoided.

If you don’t make strong demands they don’t provide documents, if you don’t argue on the basis of reason they don’t respect the rights of citizens, if you don’t protest they handle things illegally, the person who picks up when you call 110 doesn’t send any officers, etc. Finally, it’s the fourth technique: “one less issue is better than one more issue”, “inviting the gods is not as good as sending them off”; with a special agent with a special car I am sent out of the countryside under escort. After being sent off, I come back, they’re like cornered animals, using beatings to threaten me.

Among them are friends and enemies. On the one hand, they brazenly ignore human and legal rights, which is illegal and unprincipled, laying out layers of sentry posts and impeding the legal rights of those wishing to conduct this citizens’ investigation, on the other hand, I often feel they’re just following the orders of “higher-ups”, when things don’t go smoothly behave like a gangster, or use illegal tactics to enforce the law, or resort to violence and thievery, all these kinds of behavior cannot be helped. They [the higher-ups] don’t ask for meritorious service, they just demand that nothing goes wrong.

Institute Head Meng, when he got off of work, immediately returned and wanted to put everything down in writing […] When I left the police substation in the outskirts of town, he called me over to the doorway and shook my hand, saying “I’m happy to have met you.” The man who escorted me home started with a straight face as though he wouldn’t let personal feelings get in the way of duty, but on the road home began to discuss his family with me. Taiping 2nd Middle School Chemistry teacher and branch secretary Wu, participated in intercepting me and forcing me to leave, but during and after when I was beaten, he was the only person who stayed with me and afterwards, took me to the hospital to get checked out, even “delaying a date with [his] girlfriend” to help me. For the public good, he took on the identity of government representative and policy explainer to do “ideological work” with me […] For his personal interest, he actually felt the same as I did about my unfortunate situation, frequently repeating he opposed the use of violence, enthusiastically helping me and treating me like a friend.

These people’s relationships with me are like two locusts tied to the same string, or two actors on the same stage, we are interconnected. The methods we use in our struggles are different, but undoubtedly we are all victims of the power of the system. We’ve all played the opponent in plays but don’t really wish to enter the plays ourselves, this play is just being put on for the sake of “other people” watching. More “into the play”, and less human are Principal Yang of Taiping 2nd Middle School, leader Yang Xing, the middle aged woman who photographed and searched me but refused to sign her name. Throughout, they stood strong and unyielding on the opposing side, labeling me a “inflexible enemy” and refusing to communicate, beating me and pressuring my appeals and resistance [on the basis of] human rights. President Yang was frenzied in his attempt to frame me for “removing two female students from the school.” These people’s deeds were the evil, falling club; [these people are like] a mad guard dog protecting a rich household, they have lost all individual thought and willpower, letting people brandish [weapons, i.e., resort to violence] and spurring them on.

Seeking a living within the system is like seeking a living in the gangland world, you must always follow the orders of the “higher-ups” and “elders”, the more you are obedient the more you are well-received; the more you are loyal the more you are favored. If you have independent thoughts and the sprit of a critical thinker, I fear it will be difficult for you to find a place. Even if you aren’t thrown out, you can only feel wronged and seek to protect yourself through not working too hard. When I come in contact with them, I can often sense the rope that binds them, and the hand that’s holding the rope on the other end. Those like School President Yang, those kind of hatchet-men, maybe they will have an opportunity for a meteoric rise, but they’re also easily sacrificed by the “higher-ups”. Their methods will sooner or later lose the support of the people and they will become public targets. The anger of the people is uncontrollable, and when it threatens the “higher-ups”, these hatchet men are the most valuable sacrificial lambs. As for those rogues who do the beating, they will always be ignorant and will always be being used. One can sympathize with them, but they’re not even worth mentioning.

Jiangyou, a small city located in the northwestern part of the Sichuan basin, covers 2,716 square kilometers, with a population of 877,600 people. It’s 160 kilometers from Chengdu. In my brief stay in Jiangyou, what I saw and heard reminded me of my own home, Panjin City in Liaoning. Whether it’s the scale of the city or the landscape or people’s attitudes, these two cities are similar. In modern China, no one can shut themselves in an ivory tower, there is nowhere that’s a haven of peace. If, in life, you wish to get far away from this haze, aside from action, aside from seriously and earnestly fighting for change, creation, and construction, there’s no other way.

*法氓, I was unable to find a reliable definition for this term and I’m not familiar with it, so I’m guessing.
**The original is 会武术, which literally means “can do martial arts”, but a literal translation in English makes it somewhat confusing so I’ve rendered his usages of this metaphor more loosely on the assumption that his meaning is “to have the ability to back up their desires with action and enforce them”
***The name of the town, 太平, means peace.

Who’s really to blame here, and is Ai Weiwei really right in letting some of the underlings who harassed him off the hook?

0 thoughts on “Ai Weiwei: “Gangsters in the Government””

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. Stockholm Syndrome? Hardly. Ai is being realistic here. Even the ‘highest’ person he came in contact with was still nothing more than a foot-soldier. I believe that that is his point! These are people who are doing things because they ‘must’ in order to maintain their tenuous positions. I seriously doubt that Ai met anyone of consequence; those folks don’t ever show their faces. He met the ones full of fear. And, as he correctly states, they will be the ones who will eventually feel the people’s wrath. Their handlers/bosses are well behind the scenes, protecting themselves and generating alibis/excuses. They are the ones who will always be there, untouched by the people or the national government, since they are doing the official work that needs to be done: keeping the names of dead children as ‘state secrets.’ Ai Weiwei is not cowed by some beatings. The mention of Stockholm Syndrome is an insult. Good for you with translating this, but drop the question at the end. It devalues your work.


  3. The reference to Stockholm Syndrome was meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the reason I mentioned it at all was because of the nice things he said about the guy who stayed with him during/after the beating and then took him to the hospital. Yes, it’s nice someone took him to the hospital, but this guy was also standing around doing nothing while people were beating him…praising him seems a bit like praising a guy who steals 100 RMB from you but gives you 1 kuai back for the bus ride home.

    My larger point is, yes, these people are being used, but does that really absolve them of responsibility? Not that Ai was saying it does, but I’m not sure I really agree with your characterization. No one is forcing these people to work for the government (or the schools, or whatever), so if they’re really ‘full of fear’ and merely being forced to act like this, they can always quit. There are always other gangsters the higher-ups can hire. I’m sure fear is a factor, but these people don’t have guns to their heads forcing them to work for the local PSB. Even when the orders are coming from higher-up, some of the blame has to rest with the people who are carrying out those obviously illegal orders.

    (As for the question in general, well, it’s just there to try to generate some comments. Looks like it worked.)


  4. Pingback: Where’s Wen?
  5. @ Chris, that’s also true. I took the “Stockholm Syndrome” bit out anyway, just because I don’t want to come off as disrespectful towards Ai and apparently some people can’t tell the difference between askin’ and tellin’.


  6. This is one of those times when I could give 6/5 stars. Custer, what you were saying is true, that they can always quit, but why would they? They’re corrupt officials in an authoritarian regime and part of the fear that’s involved with being at the absolute mercy of your superiors is fear that the money flow will stop. They’re corrupt, yes, but that corruption extends beyond simply carrying out illegal orders. As Minxin Pei points out:

    • Though the Chinese government has more than 1,200 laws, rules, and directives against corruption, implementation is spotty and ineffective. The odds of a corrupt official going to jail are less than three percent, making corruption a high-return, low-risk activity. Even low-level officials have the opportunity to amass an illicit fortune of tens of millions of yuan.


    That’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? Money? I feel fairly certain that the people in charge, although there are some sympathizers, will not do anything for fear that they’ll be precluded from becoming one of the people to amass fortunes of tens of millions of yuan. And even if they don’t get to that point, who knows? If they mess up early on, just as Ai says, they’ll lose their job — or a whole hell of a lot worse.


  7. @ C.
    “No one is forcing these people to work for the government (or the schools, or whatever), so if they’re really ‘full of fear’ and merely being forced to act like this, they can always quit.”

    I have linked to your blog since I think that what you’ve done needs to be done. But also, clearly, you have not spent much time in the countryside where the largest employers are generally the education departments, the only ‘iron rice bowl’ jobs left. Quitting is not much of an option, unless you want to be a migrant worker. And 20+ million of them have already gone home where there aren’t any jobs to compete for. Perhaps that will help you understand a little better Ai’s response to the those ‘standing around doing nothing while people were beating him.’ He understood their situation and held no grudge. It’s just the way it is. Hard to swallow, maybe, but it doesn’t change the way it is. He wasn’t praising anyone. He was only acknowledging that there’s not much of a choice but to stand around and watch. And so it goes.


  8. @ jg, you’re right, I’ve spent very little time in the countryside and you make a good point, although I would argue that in Jiangyou, a town with a population of nearly a million, there are probably some other rice bowls left to choose from. Yes, the government is more or less the only iron rice bowl left in town, but if you’re living in fear day in and day out, wouldn’t a slightly more fragile rice bowl still be preferable?

    As for Ai’s response to people standing around and watching, I do understand it, I just don’t feel the same way myself. Yes, they’re in a difficult position, but there is ALWAYS a choice. It’s an extremely difficult one, and I could never prove that in their shoes I’d do any differently, but still…

    Ai Weiwei is taking a stand on behalf of the students who died, but for it to work, some of these people are going to have to take a stand on behalf of Ai, too, I think.

    Also, if the “and so it goes” at the end of your comment is a Kurt Vonnegut reference, I love you.


  9. “As for the question in general, well, it’s just there to try to generate some comments”

    Wow, inflammatory misleading headlines! You sure you’re not a professional journalist?


  10. What’s most poignant for me about this episode is that the guy who designed what is arguably the number one symbol of the power of modern China is now being assaulted by the regime it was used to glorify. Ai is serving his people, the government is serving itself. Bastards.


  11. I’ve been trying to access the original post for a while by now, and got a 404 response each time. Maybe it just got river crabbed…


  12. This story made me think about the same high level corruption and lousy handling of disaster in New Orlean, despite America being a highly civilized country.


  13. @ Little Alex, I just checked and the post is gone from his blog. However, I have the original Chinese text saved in my email, so if anyone would like it, feel free to email me.


  14. Hi, could you send me a copy of the Chinese text as well? The English version was a good read and I have some Chinese-speaking friends who would appreciate the original.


  15. Ai Weiwei is in the pockets of some western agencies.

    How else would the BBC, CNN and CIA know of his actions faster than the Chinese govt.


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