On April 3rd, Chinese artist and citizen investigator Ai Weiwei was taken into custody by his government while attempting to fly from Beijing to Hong Kong. Initially, Chinese law enforcement would not disclose the reason, but yesterday announced they were investigating him for “suspected economic crimes.” His whereabouts are still unknown.
With the Arab world’s civil unrest in the periphery, many China critics believe the arrest of Ai Weiwei (pronounced EYE-Way-Way) is part of a recent crackdown on Chinese dissidents to stop any climate of protest from migrating into their borders. For nearly two-months, China has been arresting well known writers, human rights lawyers, and activists – making some completely vanish within their penal system. With well over a billion people under their governance, China’s leaders should fear demonstrations given their abysmal free speech and human rights record.
But the arrest of Ai Weiwei is markedly significant for one simple reason – he is one of their most prolific artists. Ai Weiwei was the “creative consultant” for the country’s iconic Beijing National Stadium – or what many refer to as China’s Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium. With the arrest of such a prominent figure, the country has sent the message to their people that no one, no matter how internationally heralded, is safe if they openly critique the government. And Ai Weiwei has done his share of criticizing.
In 2008, the country experienced a massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Sichuan province that killed by some estimates 68,000 people, while leaving millions homeless. That people died during an earthquake is not necessarily a state crime – many people have perished around the world during similar natural disasters. But in the case of Sichuan province, some parents claimed the government-erected buildings collapsed due to shoddy construction. And most troubling were how many of these fallen buildings were grade schools – killing thousands of children in the process. But even with the outcry of their parents, the government wouldn’t investigate for corruption.
Ai Weiwei took up the cause, asking the government to provide the names of the children that were killed in the quake. When he faced resistance, he began what he called a “citizen investigation” with his volunteers going door to door to acquire the names of the students. In May 2009 he created an art installation, of sorts, by listing on his studio wall for press photo-ops the more than 5,000 dead student’s names that his volunteers gathered – an enormously risky endeavor for a Chinese citizen. Then while attempting to attend the trial of a volunteer arrested for “subversion” related to their investigation, Ai Weiwei’s hotel room was raided in the early morning hours by police. They beat him over the head – but Ai Weiwei audio recorded the incident.
A month later he traveled to Munich where he created an art installation on the walls of the Haus der Kunst (or “House of Art”) using thousands of colored backpacks – the item that he found widely dispersed within the rubble of Sichuan province, indicating the large loss of young life. He used the backpacks to spell out a quote from a mourning Sichuan mother about her fallen daughter. The quote read, “She lived happily for seven years in this world.”
While in Munich he was rushed to the hospital due to a brain hemorrhage resulting from the police beating weeks earlier. The doctors said he would have died if they didn’t drill holes into his skull to drain the fluid.
Over the past two years, the man who helped design (arguably) China’s second most recognizable national monument has been placed under house arrest; his studio has been demolished due to the government’s claim that he lacked the proper permits to build it; video cameras have been installed outside of his studio; his blog posts have been repeatedly deleted and his name has been literally wiped clean from Chinese websites apparently by web police; law enforcement has followed him everywhere he goes with video cameras; he’s been beaten; and at times he’s been barred from leaving the country. But yet he bravely has continued to express his form of free speech and citizen journalism. Why? As he stated in a UK Guardian interview: “I have to speak for people who are afraid.”
The international outcry has been swift and widespread, with calls by his supporters to sign petitions demanding his release. But no amount of names on a “Free Weiwei” petition will change China’s long history of disdain for free speech.
However, one act can get their attention, and it wouldn’t take the hand of big government to employ it. It would be a peaceful act, and not one Chinese citizen would have to risk their lives by taking to the streets. And that act is for US consumers to avoid purchasing Made In China products until their government makes measurable advances to its free speech policies. I am not typically one to advocate for boycotts. They are too often used to indirectly target politicians for political purposes. But in the case of free speech in China, freeing a citizen journalist, and simultaneously creating a fair playing field for American jobs and products here at home, I see no other way.
And this is where my request to you, Mr. Trump, comes in. You have been right sir. China is a problem for the US. They are laughing at us. Their government is taking our money to rebuild their country – and, if I may add, oppressing their people in the process. In some part, it’s because of China’s economic success that the dissidents of their country can be persecuted by their government without repercussion and made to literally vanish from the sight of their families. The disappearance of this respected artist and brave citizen journalist is a brazen act by the Chinese government – an act that is being witnessed by the entire world. Nothing the US, UK, or EU says will change China’s position on free speech. No statements from politicians or names on a petition will pressure them to alter their liberty policies. But by hitting them in their pocketbook, they may rethink their position.
We need your tough talk Mr. Trump – your brash megaphone – to inform the American people of China’s bad behavior, as you have been doing for some time now. We need you to explain to Americans how China is hurting people like Ai Weiwei, and through their unfair policies, hurting the people of this country as well. We need you, in your special way Mr. Trump, to make the American people aware of their power, and that with one act they can improve human rights in China and economic prospects here in the US, without wasting any energy on talking to our leaders in Washington. With your persuasive gift, US consumers can take a stand and make China feel our will by simply avoiding their products until their government changes its tune.