From Beijing with love

The autocrat, the artist and the struggle for freedom and justice in China and beyond.

Last month, as I followed the much-anticipated Chinese Communist Party’s 100-year anniversary conference and the elevation of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping , to a prophet-like status, I started listening to the celebrated Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei’s memoir, A Thousand Years of Joys and Sorrows, hoping for a reality check, painful as it all might be.

I say painful because as I am passionately consumed by politics and arts, I generally cannot stand the eccentricities of politicians and artists. Indeed, watching Ai and Indian British artist Anish Kapoor give themselves free passes and massage each other’s egos at a recent TV appearance was, well, excruciating.

At any rate, watching Xi’s triumphs and Ai’s tribulations unravel in a split-screen picture of China’s past and present, I thought about the “Beijing paradox” – or how mass political repression produces undeniable economic security and prosperity.

On the one side, there is Xi, an introvert party apparatchik cum powerful autocrat. He is defining modern China and rewriting the history of its communism as a series of successes. He magically reconciles the irreconcilable eras of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and enshrines his own legacy as the embodiment of the country’s greatness. Under Xi’s leadership, China is reclaiming its own “manifest destiny” as a “socialist democracy”, expanding its dominion throughout Asia, and indeed the world.

Towards that end, Xi is reshaping Chinese identity, as he harps on the Chinese imperial past and cites Confucian wisdom on the importance of a country’s history for its survival, even though the Communist Party has destroyed all that came before it in order to build a new China. He is rewriting history as a success story in line with the party ideology in order to disseminate it to the public as a collective memory.

To consolidate his power, Xi secured the removal of terms limits on his post in 2018, making himself de facto president for life, and arguably the most powerful person in the world.

On the other side, stands Ai Weiwei, a poor homeless artist cum free-thinking social activist and international “celebrity”. In his book of sorrow and struggle, he paints a tragic picture of China, recounting his and his father’s own bitter experiences under the communist regime. He weaves his personal history into the national one, exposing the betrayal and disappointment that lies beneath life in modern China, as he lived it and as he sees it.

As Ai tells it, Mao admired his father’s intellect and poetry as did many, including the Chilean Nobel laureate, Pablo Neruda, but when the famous Ai Qing refused to put his poetry at the service of party propaganda, he was severely sanctioned for his defiance.

In painful detail, Ai recounts how his late father, along with hundreds of thousands of liberal intellectuals labelled “bourgeois rightists”, were sent to re-education camps and condemned to years of hard labour in northwest China. Having grown up in an underground shack, Ai describes how his father had to, literally, shovel excrement in the communal latrine for days on end.

In a sarcastic but telling remark, Ai explains why anything but newspapers were used in the toilets as wipes because every page featured something about Mao.

The advent of Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s may have put an end to Mao’s infamous cultural revolution, restoring Ai’s family reputation in the process, but his government’s 1989 crackdown on the peaceful protest in Tiananmen Square showed Ai the true regressive and repressive nature of the communist regime.

The description of his despair as he watched from his home in faraway New York how armed soldiers cracked down on spirited youth, brought back memories of my own anguish living in New York around the same period, as I watched Israeli forces crack down on the youth during the First Palestinian Intifada against the occupation.

Despite our huge cultural differences, I found myself identifying with Ai’s sense of alienation. We both were born to a family that survived foreign occupation, grew up in the shadows of a repressive state, lived in self-imposed exile, rejected orthodoxy, and even dropped out of school, albeit temporary for me, in search of a calling, a mission and meaning in life. I probably ran into him several times on the street corners of the East Village in New York.

Almost two decades after his 1993 return to China, where he became a well-known provocative social activist, Ai was detained for 81 days without trial, and was questioned about, among other things, his views on the anonymous calls for “Chinese Jasmine Revolution” protests inspired by the Tunisian revolution! And here again, I could not help but chuckle at some of his anecdotes, which I experienced during similar interrogation into my views and travels upon one of my last returns to Jerusalem.

Incidentally, I was in China when the uprising broke out in Tunisia in December 2010 but could detect no echo of it locally. Nothing displeased the Chinese and its like-minded Middle Eastern regimes, more than popular uprisings.

But if the Chinese leadership was able to produce wealth through repression, repressive Arab regimes which emulated it, produced only more misery, as I explained at length in my book, The Invisible Arabs: The Promise and Perils of the Arab Revolutions, a decade ago.

Soon after he was allowed to leave China in 2015, Ai travelled to the shores of the Mediterranean to personally witness the perils of war and the plight of millions of refugees forced out of their homes and homelands. His quest to understand human suffering also led him to Palestinian, Syrian and other refugee camps across the region, after which he produced some of his most dramatic works. Ai seems to embrace his father’s belief that anyone can write poetry, but that an artist like a poet, must be intimate, honest and loyal to their human experience, which by definition knows no national borders.

I will spare you my critique of Ai’s extensive art work, even though, I continue to scratch my head over his costly 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds installation at London’s Tate Modern gallery, which took 1,600 Chinese artisans over two and a half years to produce. But then again, regardless of what I may think of Ai’s 1985 bent wire hanger profile of French artist Marcel Duchamp, it was a pleasure to personally watch how a donated edition of it netted some $100,000 at a charity auction for Palestinian education a few years ago.

My only fear is that despite the goodwill, better exposure and best of intentions, democracy and freedom continue to decline in China, the Middle East and the rest of the world.

In such a world, we all need as many “seeds of hope” as we can muster.