Ai Weiwei is China's most famous artist. He was born in Beijing in 1957. One year later, his father, a prominent poet, was sent with his family to a labor camp, where they spent five years. Then they were exiled to a remote province for 16 years. After Mao's death, they returned to the Chinese capital.
From 1982 to 1993, Ai lived in the United States, where he attended art school and came to know many American artists.
We can guess from these facts that Ai's experiences formed in him an independent spirit and a social conscience.
For many years now, Ai has agitated against China's leadership and suffered consequences for it. He has never backed down.
Ai was the artistic consultant on the design of Beijing National Stadium, also called the Bird's Nest, which was the most prominent symbol of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
But by 2007, he refused to be photographed with the stadium or to speak of it. After years of harassment, he was disgusted with the way China's leaders were using the Olympic Games to put a false face on the country's 20th century history and continuing political repression.
In an interview, he said this:
"Can a nation be celebrated and be so proud with this ignoring of its past?
"Can you have the self-confidence to clearly examine yourself, rather than to give this kind of pretend smile on your face... It's this kind of fake smile which is disgusting ... So I hate this."
When asked what China was trying to hide, Ai said: "There are too many things. The whole political structure, the condition of civil rights ... corruption, pollution, education, you name it."
"They just say 'let's forget about all this,' let's just light some big fireworks, let's have those stupid directors, those people are such opportunists and they just become part of the powerful manipulators because they have no self-consciousness and have such bad taste."
In 2008, an enormous earthquake in China's Sichuan Province flattened many schools; most had been built on the cheap by politically connected contractors who were more interested in making money than maintaining construction standards. (This is a theme in Chinese industry; think of the exports of toys covered with lead paint and of tainted drywall.)
The Chinese government wanted as little publicity about the earthquake as possible, but Ai was moved to action. He formed a group that investigated the students' deaths and recorded their names, more than 5,000 of them, which he released online and posted in his studio.
This is what earned him the beating and the cerebral hemorrhage that was resolved only months later by surgery in Germany.
Later, in 2011, he was held under house arrest for three months and was convicted of tax evasion in a show trial that he was not allowed to attend. His passport, seized in 2011, was only returned to him this summer.
Last fall, in an interview with the German magazine, Der Spiegel, Ai described the government's surveillance of him -- more than a dozen cameras posted outside his home, the same few spies with cameras whom he encountered everywhere he went. (In response, he posted four cameras inside his home and broadcast what they recorded.)
From the article:
SPIEGEL: Why does China's government still resort to such measures?
Ai: Because it's efficient. If your government clearly tells you to your face that it doesn't have to follow the rules, if it tells you openly: Don't even try it, we'll stop you with any means necessary -- then your game is over. At the same time, it is of course also dangerous for the government because it shows how weak its legitimacy is.
SPIEGEL: Weak? Or unassailable?
Ai: It still won't dare concede that it doesn't trust its people even after six decades. Astonishing. The Communists at the time came to power because they had the support of the people. But they never fulfilled their promises. Mao Zedong said: We will always have transparency; the people will have the right to vote. Sixty-four years have passed since then. Where is the voting ballot?
SPIEGEL: At its congress in November the party agreed various reforms -- it wants to close the "re-education" camps, loosen the one-child policy, and curb the power of state enterprises. But it still doesn't want political reforms. It seems to be taking the same gamble as all the Chinese leaderships since Deng Xiaoping: As long as we're economically successful, we don't need to open ourselves politically.
Ai: This is a much riskier gamble today. Deng Xiaoping said: Let us cross the river by probing for stones with our feet. It's not like that anymore. The party is walking a high tightrope. And it doesn't have a safety net. If it falls, there will be a complete disaster. That's why it's so nervous, that's why it's trying to centralize all the power.
SPIEGEL: Has the new leadership done anything right since it came to power a year ago?
Ai: They didn't do anything right. And I say that so clearly because the game is simple: You have to win over the public. Because the leaders aren't connected to the real world, they have no concept of reality anymore. How can they gain faith in this way?
By this point, Wei's fame probably restrains his government from treating him as badly as it does less well-known dissidents.
But he doesn't always get much support from authentically democratic countries.
Just recently, as he was preparing works rendered in Lego blocks for an Australian exhibit,
the toy company refused to sell him the materials he needed.
Lego is a private company based in Denmark; Legoland theme parks are owned by a British conglomerate.
Lego spokesman Roar Rude Trangbæk said: “Any individual person can naturally purchase or get access to Lego bricks in other ways to create their Lego projects if they desire to do so, but as a company, we choose to refrain from engaging in these activities – through for example bulk purchase.
“In cases where . . .we are made aware that there is a political context, we therefore kindly decline support.”
This would be comical if it weren't so pathetic. Whatever you think of Ai's work, you have to admit that he's a serious man who has paid a price for speaking his mind.
But Lego is afraid of the "political context" of his use of its toys.
Earlier this year, the U.K. denied Ai a work passport for a stay of several months because he had not informed the country of his "criminal record"; instead, the Brits said, he could visit as a tourist but only for three weeks.
Last Friday Ai implied in an Instagram post that Lego was acting to protect its business prospects in China. Sounds plausible to me.
Happily, children the world over are more brave than toy executives and government officials. They have been sending Ai boxes of their own Legos for use in his work.
I have focused here on Ai's viewpoint on China, but his artistic output is wide-ranging and deserves attention. Here are a few documentaries that show him in his broader context. All are available on Youtube.
"Big Brother Watching Me," from the BBC.
"Ai Weiwei, Without Fear or Favor," also from the BBC.
"An Evening with Ai Weiwei," by the Royal Academy of Arts