Conclusions and First Go at Activism

Written by Julen Madariaga on April 22nd, 2011

Last week I wrote a post where I expressed some views on Ai WeiWei and other dissidents. This attracted an unexpected number of comments, and it even inspired a podcast in the best blog about China in Spanish, Zaichina. All in all, it has been a long and fruitful exchange, so I want to thank everyone for participating with an open mind. Below I write the conclusions I drew.

It is unfortunate that all this discussion started with a response to Osnos’ blog,  because it caused the whole debate to turn around that. I regret that by doing this I have upset some people I respect, who were actively demanding Ai’s release. The fact is I disagree with and even dislike many of Ai and Liu’s statements, but now that they’ve been imprisoned for speaking out their views, there is only one right thing to do. This blog stands for Freedom of Speech.

So I have decided to borrow the banner from the roof of the Tate Museum and hang it on my own roof until my next posting, or until my blog goes down, whichever happens first. It represents not only Ai and Liu, but any person who has been imprisoned merely for having different ideas or for exposing hideous crimes, like the American hero Bradley Manning.



Summary and Main Points Taken

And finally, here are my main conclusions of the debate:

  • There is a worrying trend in the pro-democracy movement in the West, including aspects as varied as Liu’s Nobel, the so-called Jasmine “revolutions” of China or the success of Ai’s art. The West creates its own icons without considering whether they have any chance to be accepted by the Chinese people—and of this much I am sure: the most important point for a democratic movement to succeed is to convince its own people. Any other road leads to Irak.
  • One worrying aspect of the Liu and Ai work is they represent a radical current of thought that has a long history in China—from the early years of the republic, to the Cultural Revolution and then the “River Elegy” movement.  This is a current of  self-abasement and contempt of the own culture, which proposes wholesale replacement by “Westernization” , as Liu himself says. This kind of thought mirrors the opposite ultra-nationalist current, and they both feed on each other, at the expense of more moderate, balanced positions. I am afraid by supporting these options we are only pushing China even further from the West.
  • Another way of seeing this is the usual blog discussions that many of us have with patriotic Chinese. In the media and schools, the CPP deliberately conflates China with CCP, promoting the idea that criticizing the regime is tantamount to attacking the country. Unfortunately, many of Ai and Liu’s statements only add to the confusion, as they direct their attacks to the culture and history of China rather than the party. This, and Liu’s openly pro-American stance in criminal invasion wars (all the while receiving money from the US) makes it extremely difficult to make a case for his independence, let alone his pacifism.
  • I believe the best that can happen to the Chinese today (and to the rest of the World) is a progressive opening of China and a normal exchange with the West — free of weird inferiority/superiority complexes. I think initiatives like the WTO, the Olympics and many other in the last decade are conductive to this, whereas extreme statements like those of Ai and Liu only distance us more and more. There is way too much at stake to let it in the hands of impulsive characters.
  • As a commentator said in the last post, the situation is not due to Western media bias, but rather to CCP pressure, which causes the moderate Chinese dissidents to decline interviews. Another journalist in the podcast confirmed also what we all know: that the media is there to sell stories and that a story with a special character sells better than a story without. In other words, the Western media doesn’t work for freedom, it works to sell papers—to Western readers. Which is why the Fourth Estate in international politics is essentially flawed.
  • So, partly due to the CCP and partly due to the structure of the World media, we end up with these heroes created to our own image. Fine, that’s how the World works today, it is faulty, but not deliberately evil. Just please, do not kid yourself, don’t dream that you are seeing the heroes of the Chinese, or the leaders that will change China.


Are there other options?

I imagine the best critic that can be done to all this is: “do you have any better option?”

Sincerely, I believe there are other options. They are surely not as accessible as Ai, because they shy away from Western media. They may be difficult to accept in our countries, because their ideas clash with preconceptions of what dissidence should be. Moreover, their art or writing might be very specific to the Chinese public, making them impossible to sell in the West.

These are all major difficulties, sure. But frankly, I just don’t see anyone is trying so hard to surmount them.

We have seen in the past how the media ignores thinkers who don’t conform with strictly Western standards of “dissidence”.  One obvious example I think of right now is Han Han, who has immensely more weight in China than Liu or Ai. Another is Xu ZhiYong, who did a comprehensive study of the Tibetan problem, not to mention the cases of the black cells in Beijing, studies that were incomparably more elaborate and politically risky than the lists of Ai.

I am not suggesting we should turn these people into media stars, that wouldn’t help much. But it would be interesting to keep an eye on them, rather than  spend all the efforts inflating our own myths. When the day comes, it will be people like that who will make a difference.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Apr

    I don’t understand why you use such a term as “west” this so-called west does not exist. it is a fake category made up to refer to Europe and America or “non-China- but-not Africa- and -not-South-and-Central-America-andRussia”

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:


    Yes, I use it for lack of a better name. Also because it is the word Liu uses himself “westernization”. I guess it means different things in different contexts, sometimes it can also include countries in Latin America and East Europe…

    Anyway, in the context of international media, the word “Western” is mostly synonym of “Anglo-American”. The English language agencies and media have overwhelmingly larger resources and audiences than the rest, so it is usually them who set the trends.

    [Reply to this comment]

    b Reply:

    @Julen Madariaga,

    yes, well in an academic paper for example it would certainly be required to not use or define such a term. The “west” does not exist in reality anymore.

    Liu might mean individual freedom and separation of justice(?) That is the problem with this term: it is an essentializing umbrella term, unclear and hence inaccurate. Just as Said argued in Orientalism and Harootunian later on, or Buruma in Occidentalism, this sort of particularizing and other-ifying is fraught with severe problems in terms of the knowledge that is built using such fake and polarizing categories.

    It is better to be as specific as possible instead otherwise we succumb to Global Times type of thinking.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Apr

    Bubbling up a list of “heroes” unnoticed by western media would be nice for casual observers like me. But then that paranoia light starts flashing: could such an action give them the kind of attention that hurts their efforts to affect change?

    Besides that, are there anyone noticeable working from within the system? Those are names worth keeping an eye on too. (I know they’re there because there must be and I have vague memories of a few that seem to be making some real changes within their span of control.)

    [Reply to this comment]

    FOARP Reply:


    I guess I’ve been ref’ing Guo Quan all over the place enough for it to become a bit tiresome, but I’ll do it again:

    Guo Quan - didn’t speak to media, didn’t take foreign money, did advocate nationalistic views, did advocate democracy, did get arrested and imprisoned for 10 years on “incitement” charges.

    Who stands the best chance of being released: Liu Xiaobo, who established strong links with foreign human rights advocacy groups? Or Guo Quan, whose case is relatively unknown, and whom only Amnesty and HRIC have been doing press releases on? If you wished to advocate democracy in China, which route would you chose?

    And no, there are no reformists worth mention working within the system. According to the insiders quoted in the Wikileaks dump of diplomatic communiques, there is, for all intents and purposes, no reform faction in the higher leadership. This is correlated, if nothing else, by the events of the past six months, in which we have seen Wen Jiabao’s timid suggestion that reform should be advanced thrust aside by the advent of the new generation of leadership.

    We appear to be seeing the advent of unabashed totalitarianism in China, different to the restrained tone introduced by Deng Xiaoping, and of which these arrests are only one symptom among several.

    [Reply to this comment]

    cephaloless Reply:

    @FOARP, Guo Quan doesn’t ring any bells but his name in chinese looks familiar. Thanks for bring it up.

    I’m in agreement with you on the higher levels of leadership in china although sometimes I like to think the few that talk “reformist” are just powerless to push for anything. But, either way, all talk no results. I’m thinking more of the lower levels who are only able to affect the small areas under their control. But then again, “seem to do good” and never heard from again (at least not from where I’m sitting).

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Apr

    I was kind of surprised by the people in that post who misunderstood and-worse-those who consistently misrepresented your position.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @Kai -

    I was not so surprised. People skim through things fast on the internet-and the timing for my post was not ideal either, with many readers now emotionally involved with Ai.

    Considering the circs, I am very pleased of how civil everyone has been, I didn’t need to send a single poster to serve in Gitmo.

    I am also very proud of the new little banner I got on my own Tate museum. It gives the blog an air of promenade on the Thames, and it is a powerful statement of principles, after spending a whole week criticizing Ai. I figure bigots from both sides must be really puzzled now…

    [Reply to this comment]

    FOARP Reply:


    A promenade along the Thames? I don’t see any umbrellas, we’re likely to get a bit wet . . .

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Apr

    My main concerns with media coverage is that it only focuses on a select few, just like it does in its African coverage, for example. In the latter it’s Mugabe, Mugabe, Mugabe. You might think, after reading that, that there are no other corrupt dictators on the continent.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Apr

    Ai’s case requires transparency not immediately release (I am guilty of being politically incorrect).

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:


    I know, yes, I thought of that too. But with the information in hand, and in view of the general trend in China, repression of FOS seems to me by far the most probable explanation for his arrest.

    If in the end the authorities come up with a sound case against him I will look like an idiot, I know. But I am willing to take the risk.

    [Reply to this comment]

    FOARP Reply:


    He has now been “under investigation” for 19 days. He could be held for a long time more before being formally arrested. My understanding is that China allows release under police bail in these circumstances. Ai Weiwei is far too well-known to be able to disappear, so it cannot be argued that he is likely to abscond. He also has sufficient resources to be able to post bail.

    In Xu Zhiyong’s case, he was released on bail after three weeks. This was reportedly after the intervention of President Obama.

    It therefore can be seen that advocating Ai’s release on bail is consistent with Chinese law, since it is allowed and does not affect the eventual out come of guilty or not guilty. It is also less likely to result in embarassment since if a bona fide case is brought your advocacy will not have worked to frustrate the punishment of the guilty. Finally, this kind of advocacy has been shown to have some kind of effect, and at the very least is not counter-productive.

    However, I doubt that Ai will be released on bail, since, in the abscence of evidence to the contrary, it appears that the reason he is under arrest is to shut him up. If he is released on bail, he could still speak to the press. Worse still, from the CCP’s point of view, he would tell the world how he was treated whilst under arrest, which is not likely to be a nice story.

    Here’s an interesting article on the use and abuse of bail in China.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @FOARP, Yes, it is a very interesting article, I remember seeing it at the time of Xu’s arrest.

    There are some legal questions I have here: In Chinese law, is there not a time limit for pre-trial detention before charges are presented?

    And if these charges are not criminal but just economic (like tax evasion) how do they justify keeping the guy in jail when the could just seize his assets or ask a bail large enough to cover it?

    I guess I know the answer: they don’t justify anything at all because they don’t give a damn for the law…

    [Reply to this comment]

    FOARP Reply:


    Here’s the statute on how long someone, onece arrested, can be held pending investigation (source):

    第九节 侦查终结  第一百二十四条 对犯罪嫌疑人逮捕后的侦查羁押期限不得超过二个月。案情复杂、期限届满不能终结的案件,可以经上一级人民检察院批准延长一个月。

      第一百二十五条 因为特殊原因,在较长时间内不宜交付审判的特别重大复杂的案件,由最高人民检察院报请全国人民代表大会常务委员会批准延期审理。

      第一百二十六条 下列案件在本法第一百二十四条规定的期限届满不能侦查终结的,经省、自治区、直辖市人民检察院批准或者决定,可以延长二个月:





      第一百二十七条 对犯罪嫌疑人可能判处十年有期徒刑以上刑罚,依照本法第一百二十六条规定延长期限届满,仍不能侦查终结的,经省、自治区、直辖市人民检察院批准或者决定,可以再延长二个月。

      第一百二十八条 在侦查期间,发现犯罪嫌疑人另有重要罪行的,自发现之日起依照本法第一百二十四条的规定重新计算侦查羁押期限。

    Trans (from here):


    Article 124 The time limit for holding a criminal suspect in custody during investigation after arrest shall not exceed two months. If the case is complex and cannot be concluded within the time limit, an extension of one month may be allowed with the approval of the People’s Procuratorate at the next higher level.

    Article 125 If due to special reasons, it is not appropriate to hand over a particularly grave and complex case for trial even within a relatively long period of time, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate shall submit a report to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for approval of postponing the hearing of the case.

    Article 126 With respect to the following cases, if investigation cannot be concluded within the time limit specified in Article 124 of this Law, an extension of two months may be allowed upon approval or decision by the People’s Procuratorate of a province, autonomous region or municipality directly under the Central Government:

    (1) grave and complex cases in outlying areas where traffic is most inconvenient;

    (2) grave cases that involve criminal gangs;

    (3) grave and complex cases that involve people who commit crimes from one place to another; and

    (4) grave and complex cases that involve various quarters and for which it is difficult to obtain evidence.

    Article 127 If in the case of a criminal suspect who may be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of ten years at least, investigation of the case can still not be concluded upon expiration of the extended time limit as provided in Article 126 of this Law, another extension of two months may be allowed upon approval or decision by the People’s Procuratorate of a province, autonomous region or municipality directly under the Central Government.

    Article 128 If during the period of investigation a criminal suspect is found to have committed other major crimes, the time limit for holding the criminal suspect in custody during investigation shall be recalculated, in accordance with the provisions of Article 124 of this Law, from the date on which such crimes are found.

    Basically, just like a lot of things in Chinese law, there looks like there’s a solid limit (2 months), but once you dig down a bit, actually there real isn’t much of a limit. They can, if they like, simply play things out by denying the person is held, charging them with additional crimes, and simply applying for extensions.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Reply:

    @FOARP, thanks for the useful links.

    So probably we will hear something more about this in about a month from now.

    hehe Reply:

    @Julen Madariaga,

    I hold freedom of information much higher than the so-called FOS. In fact, I believe FOS has often been hijacked and abused by interested groups which may harbour hidden some agenda. FOI is often the first casualty in these cases.

    It is correct to lash the authority with criticism if they are breaking the law by detaining somebody over the legal period. (I am not sure if it is the case now.) It is also justifiable to protest against the sentence if the case is built on shoddy evidence.

    However, it is another matter if some peole decide to jump the gun simply because they believe that their boy/girl is at the right side of the history without looking into the evidence, if any, on which the case is going to be built. I think that it would be a very bad precedent if this practice is accepted as the norm of the society. No matter how good, how noble the intention might be or is claimed to be.

    To have a better future, China needs rule of law. China has got its fair share of political correctness in the past.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @hehe, you are splitting hairs so thin here we got to micron level… MiniYou, bring over the microscope!

    No seriously, I don’t think you can split FOI and FOS, they are two faces of the same coin. FOI is at the receiving end of FOS. That is: if there is no right to speak up (FOS)-for example about the children dead in Sichuan- then most people can’t get this information (FOI).

    Your argument as I see it is not so much about separating FOS/FOI, but about the limits of Freedom of Speech, which must and do exist in all countries. I would be willing to grant a lot of slack to the CCP to define limits of FOS more stringent than democracies-for example, insulting the CCP martyrs or mocking the colonial suffering could be an offense, as similar stuff is in many countries. I don’t think it is ideal, but I could understand that under the excuse of “cultural difference”.

    The problem is, up to now we are not even close to that point. Because as you say, the leaders show an utter lack of respect for the law, so they don’t even bother to properly define the limits of FOS.

    The real limit of FOS today is: whatever the boss finds annoying. This is what is really dangerous, and in the long term bad for China.

    [Reply to this comment]

    hehe Reply:

    @Julen Madariaga,

    I might be guilty of splitting the hair, but I still think that FOI and FOS are two different things. FOI deals with the provision of factual information to the society(FOI is subject to a boundary issue itself too, but it is a different matter.) whereas FOS defines the boundary of publicizing ones’ opinion/comments/ideas, often on the basis of factual information.

    Please let me borrow your example regarding CCP martyrs/ the colonial suffering. In this case, FOI is concerned with whether the person has indeed insulted CCP martyrs/mocked the colonial suffering (and whatever factual issues surrounding the matter). FOS defines if there is any limit to FOS itself and, if any, where the boundary is. This could indeed be related to cultural difference. For example, insulting CCP martyrs can be a crime in China while it might be applauded somewhere else.

    I see a clear constrast between Ai’s and Liu’s cases. Liu has been sentenced according to a charge which is related to both FOI and FOS, i.e. he did promote/publicize some political ideas/opinions etc. and the political ideas/opinions he has been promoting/publicizing is beyond the boundary of FOS defined by the government (whether the boundary is justifiable or not is a different issue.)

    On the other hand, Ai’s alleged crime (tax fraud) has nothing to do with FOS. The government is not charging him because he has published some names of the children who died in the earthquake. They are not charging him because he has organised a “fuck the motherland” campaign either. This indicates that the authority realises that Ai’s above behaviour is within the boundary of FOS, no matter how “annoying” it might be to them.

    I understand the argument that FOS might not have been defined clearly in practice, effectively becoming “whatever the boss finds annoying” in some cases. However, isn’t this another reason that we need FOI, FOI in relation to FOS in particular? My point is that you cannot have proper FOS without getting proper FOI in the first place. FOS may be the beautiful “hanging garden” but it requires the solid pillars of FOI. This is why I am against calling for the immediate release of Ai.

    [Reply to this comment]

    FOARP Reply:


    Of course your reasoning here (FOI being close to FOS) is a fact of law in most countries.

    In the UK the courts have covered this several times, most recently in a case where Paddy Ashdown (former Liberal Democrat leader) used copyright to prevent a newspaper publishing excerpts from his unpublished memoirs. The court allowed the injunction but took pains to say that if it were in the public’s interest for them to know something, then, since the freedom of information implies a freedom to be informed, the right of freedom of speech under the European Convention on Human Rights would have to be given play.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Apr
    Joyce Lau

    Of course Ai Weiwei should be tried if he did something wrong. But it’s pretty clear this isn’t a normal case.

    It took Beijing a long time even to come up with charges. When they did, they sounded made up. An art professor at a state-funded school comes out of nowhere and claims that Ai stole an idea for a project that happened back in 2007? If China really wanted to crack down on copyright issues, they can go to any pirated DVD or bookshop in town.

    When nobody believed that charge, the authorities changed it something about taxes.

    None of these are major crimes — it’s not like they’re hunting down a terrorist or murderer. There’s no civilized country on earth that will “disappear” people for weeks over a copyright issue or a tax form.

    Lawyers in China have pointed out that, at the very least, the authorities should let him contact his family or lawyer, and that people should at least know where he is — what jail, what courtroom, what crime he allegedly committed, etc.

    Given past harassment of Ai — being beaten up in Sichuan, having his studio torn down in Shanghai — you can’t see this as a normal “economic crime,” as is claimed.

    [Reply to this comment]

    hehe Reply:

    @Joyce Lau,

    “Of course Ai Weiwei should be tried if he did something wrong. ”

    “But it’s pretty clear this isn’t a normal case.”

    “It took Beijing a long time even to come up with charges. ”

    I don’t think that this is actually the case. Correct me if I am wrong if you have factual figures.

    “When they did, they sounded made up.”
    Probably to some people. Actually I would be surprised that the charges are indeed made-up, for logical reasons.

    “An art professor at a state-funded school comes out of nowhere and claims that Ai stole an idea for a project that happened back in 2007? If China really wanted to crack down on copyright issues, they can go to any pirated DVD or bookshop in town.”
    This is not part of the charge as far as I know.

    “When nobody believed that charge, the authorities changed it something about taxes.”
    I don’t think that this is what happened. When did they change the charge? What was the initial one? I only know that Ai has been under investigation for tax fraud, possibly for ex-marital marriage too.

    “None of these are major crimes”
    This is your opinion. Tax fraud can be a serious crime. In china, people have been executed for tax fraud. It all depends on the number which we don’t know.

    “There’s no civilized country on earth that will “disappear” people for weeks over a copyright issue or a tax form.”
    For how many weeks was he “disappeared”? Is that still within the legal limit? I would also refrain from making a condescending judgement on a whole country on the basis of a single measure.

    “Lawyers in China have pointed out that, at the very least, the authorities should let him contact his family or lawyer, and that people should at least know where he is — what jail, what courtroom, what crime he allegedly committed, etc.”
    I generally agree.

    “Given past harassment of Ai — being beaten up in Sichuan, having his studio torn down in Shanghai — you can’t see this as a normal “economic crime,” as is claimed.”

    Beating somebody, wrong; torning down a studio, depends.

    My take is that it probably is a normal economic crime in abnormal circumstances.

    [Reply to this comment]

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