Catching Up With Ai Weiwei

We’ve written an awful lot about Ai Weiwei over the past year, but things have been fairly quiet from him in the past few months. Well, until recently.

First, there’s his hourlong documentary on his attempt to testify in Tan Zuoren’s court case. The entire video is on Youtube and you can watch it, complete with English subtitles, at CDT, but in case you haven’t got an hour to kill watching people yell in Chinese, here’s what we took away from it:

  • The film does include audio footage of Ai Weiwei being hit (the camera was on but the lens cap was covered). Of course, it’s impossible to tell what really happened but there’s the clear sound of Ai’s hotel door being broken down, followed by what sounds a lot like a very solid punch. Ai said he was hit in the head, and eventually he needed surgery for the injury. He is only hit once, although in this case it seems as though once was enough.
  • Most of the film concerns Ai and his team (which includes lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan as well as one of Tan Zuoren’s lawyers) wading through red tape to attempt to negotiate the release of Ai’s assistant, who had been detained in the same midnight raid that Ai was beaten during, but never released. They are sent from one police officer to the next, each offering very little help, and often making them wait or refusing to respond directly to any questions.
  • The lawyers repeatedly attempt to handle the situation responsibly, reminding the police that the law dictates they can only detain someone for 12 hours if they aren’t being arrested. Unsurprisingly, though, Ai Weiwei often bursts into the conversation with more heated words. He’s clearly very, very angry, and while his outbursts are totally unproductive, in the face of the things they’re being told, his frustration is understandable. As he notes, he had already been arrested twenty-two times in 2009 (at that point) and was likely getting tired of the same excuses.
  • The police, too, get frustrated, as Ai’s group is knowledgeable enough in the law to be a policeman’s worst nightmare. Both sides are extremely distrustful of each other, and one of the last arguments finally reaches a fever pitch that concludes with someone screaming, “FINE, LET US SHOW OUR IDs TO EACH OTHER THEN!” (Mutual identification and the sharing of ID credentials is a contentious issue throughout)
  • As they leave the building, they are harassed by more police, who attempt to confiscate their cameras, although they are already on a public street and were filming the police station from the outside. A long argument ensues, but perhaps the most interesting part is when one of Ai’s lawyers offers his ID and the policeman takes it. In desperation, several members of Ai’s crew all lunge for the ID before the man can confiscate it, shouting, “Just look, you cannot take it!” The fear in their eyes is palpable, a sobering reminder of just how much rides on something as simple as having proper ID.

Of course, the whole reason Ai was in Sichuan was to support Tan Zuoren and his Citizen’s Investigation into the deaths of the students in the Sichuan earthquake. While Ai has released his list of names before, we thought we would link to it again, as he’s now posted it in a much more readable Google spreadsheet. There’s not much to translate, but the columns read as follows (from left to right): Name, Gender, Birthdate, Age (at time of death), School, Class/Grade. So far, there are 5,212 names.

Ai also commented today on the news that human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was giving up activism after a year of detention (and other previous instances of detention and torture) in the hopes that he will be allowed to see his family. According to numerous reports, Gao has seemed out of sorts since his “release” — though he clearly hasn’t been truly released — and Ai made it clear he holds nothing against Gao for bowing out of the fight. In a tweet earlier today, he wrote:

“Lawyer Gao, no one will be disappointed with you. Everyone knows who it was that has harmed your family, harmed your children, harmed the Chinese people, and shamelessly harmed you yourself.”

Ai also wrote today that “Lies and violence are two great pillars of totalitarianism. One could say that lies are just another kind of violence.”

0 thoughts on “Catching Up With Ai Weiwei”

  1. It turns out, Ai Weiwei did end up requiring surgery for those head injuries while he was exhibiting in Munich, Germany. During his time in Munich, he took on a collaboration with German-based clothing label, DES ARTISTES, to design a series of t-shirts for charity. The most provocative of these tees is one depicting a scan of Ai Weiwei’s hemorrhaging brain- a direct result of the police brutality he suffered because of his investigation into the victims of the Szechuan earthquake.

    You can view Ai Weiwei’s “Brain Inflation” and the rest of the collection at:




    In the evening of May 20th 2011, Cuban American artist Geandy Pavon, as part of his Nemesis series, projected a video portrait of jailed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
    The artist Geandy Pavon conceived “Nemesis” to protest and bring to light the death in a hunger strike of Cuban prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo while in custody of the Cuban government. In similar circumstances, Ai Weiwei has been unjustly incarcerated by the Chinese regime. The concept of the project is to impose the face of the victim on buildings walls that house government offices. This act serves as an indictment of the Chinese totalitarian oppression. The light on the wall is a symbol of revelation.
    Nemesis Ai Weiwei: The Elusiveness of Being. By Geandy Pavon.
    Contact info: (201) 289 2843 or email at :
    The video:


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