A weekly column in which Chinese media is taken to the stocks.
By TAR Nation
On Tuesday night, the Global Times published an article damning Elton John for dedicating his performance to Ai Weiwei and encouraging Chinese people to boo future similar performers off the stage. On the same day, GT published “‘Top thinkers’ list a reflection of US values,” a scathing indictment of Foreign Policy’s list, which features, among others, Ai Weiwei.
It seems that GT will do just about anything it can to insult, discredit and destroy Ai Weiwei.
But it was not always so.
THE LOVE AFFAIR
Once upon a time, Ai was a common feature in the Global Times English-language edition. Collaborator on the Bird’s Nest Stadium, world-renowned artist, troublemaker with just enough sense to stay inside the lines, Ai Weiwei.
There was once optimism at the ludicrously nationalistic propaganda rag, confidence that it wouldn’t just be another party-line tool. No one really knows what happened to make GT’s English-language site become an embarrassment to both China and the government for which it plays pitbull. The columns from He-Hu-Shall-Not-Be-Named got more hateful and violent. The toadying slowly rose to nausea-inducing levels. And anyone who had any idealism got fired, quit or paid enough not to mind.
But back in 2009, there was hope that GT could be relevant, and Ai, just bad-boy enough to make it into the papers, was a bread-and-butter play.
In November 2009, Ai was cited in a feature called “Rage inside the machine,” an article so-called for observations in his blog. In the same month, Ai was mentioned in “2009 in features,” noting a New York Times piece “about some of the more disquieting aspects of his life and work.” In September of that same year, Ai was lauded in “Ai Weiwei’s World Map,” a puff piece featuring his gallery opening in 798. Quote: “Commenting on the socio-political and economic climate of contemporary China, Ai uses metaphoric references, humor, pun and political irony to redefine and reconsider the meaning of traditions.”
GT also acknowledged, without foaming at the mouth, his earthquake work:
As an internationally recognized contemporary Chinese artist, Ai found himself under the spotlight again in December when he started an investigation into the student casualties in the Sichuan earthquake last May.
“Artist,” not dissident or traitor or Western stooge or liberal. “Artist.”
It wasn’t just the Global Times, either. No one really had an excuse to hunt the bearded media-savvy artiste. Xinhua was all aflutter over his being chosen by the Danish government to design a replacement for their “The Little Mermaid,” which was going to be at the Shanghai Expo in 2010, a story reported earlier in May 2009. Under the People’s Daily wide umbrella, The Market News (市场报) praised him in 2005. In Global People (环球人物) and in the overseas edition of People’s Daily, Ai got the celebrity treatment. And Economic Weekly (中国经济周刊) fawned over him in 2009 (see above CMP link for more info).
In the Global Times Forum, GT published Ai’s blog post, “Why Barack Obama should talk about human rights.” In December of the same year, Ai got himself a massive feature, “Making waves,” which celebrated and rejoiced in his kitschy grassroots investigation into the earthquake and artwork. Also, in 2009, GT published this picture:
That is Ai Weiwei’s 9,000 backpacks spelling out “She led a happy life in this world for seven years” in memory of Yang Xiaowan, who died in the Sichuan earthquake. The article was a call to arms for brilliant bloggers, opening with, “Reports of the death of blogging appear greatly exaggerated.”
2010 was not much different. Wen Tao, the greatest reporter you’ll never meet, published “Ai Weiwei takes on ministry” in March 2010. From “A bit of Beijing in Berlin” to “Artist share moving stories,” he was China’s premier artist and lovable eccentric. GT seemingly took his side on the demolition of Fake, and they even published Ai’s personal photos of a protest.
Here is a photo of Ai Weiwei actually IN the Global Times building on Guanghualu in Beijing having his photo taken with staff in early 2011, about three months before GT branded him a “tool of the West.”
The important thing to remember is that, at this time, not one editorial from Hu Xijin or Shan Renping said a word about Ai Weiwei. It just wasn’t in their wheelhouse.
Then he “touched the red line,” as Hu Xijin put it.
THE RED LINE
Everything changed on April 6, 2011, after Ai’s arrest for “tax evasion.” Global Times turned on him with a coordinated character assault. The following is an excerpt from “The law will not be twisted for mavericks” (Chinese edition translation, all praise be unto CMP).
Ai Weiwei, who has been called an “avant-garde artist,” was reportedly “led away” by Chinese police recently, and a number of Western governments and “human rights organizations” quickly stepped out to interfere, demanding that China immediately release Ai Weiwei. They also elevated this matter as a “worsening of human rights” in China, and called Ai Weiwei a “champion of human rights in China.”
Ai Weiwei is a “performance artist” who has been quite active in recent years, and he is often called an “avant-garde artist.” He is a maverick standing on his own. He goes against artistic tradition, and he loves “shocking others with words” (惊人之语) and “shocking others with actions” (惊人之举). He also enjoys moving at the “fringes of the law”, doing things “the legality or illegality of which” ordinary people can’t quite grasp.
As Ai Weiwei loves doing things his way, he often does things “others don’t dare to do.” Moreover, he is surrounded by people of similar ilk. He is probably quite clear himself that he is often not very far from the red line of Chinese law.
This is how fast the whole of China’s propaganda machine can turn on anyone, with vicious and injudicious use of quotation marks.
The Chinese newspapers have done this with every dissident to get a headline, asserting that they sold out their country for fame and glory in the West. They did it with Liu Xiaobo, Liao Yiwu, Chen Guangcheng, ad infinitum. So, in the end, it wasn’t Ai Weiwei that did wrong. It was his defenders, and his defenders came from artists and advocates in pretty much every country on earth with an Internet connection. This means one thing in China: the West.
But Ai Weiwei didn’t just fall from grace. He was pushed.
From that point forward, he was referred to as a dissident or a Western pawn, never again as an “award-winning Chinese artist.” His name became “sensitive,” support of him became harmonized and he was relegated to the scapegoat cabinet of Chinese media. These efforts were, and continue to be, spearheaded by the nationalistic shame that is Global Times. People’s Daily largely stays out of it, but when they do wade into those waters, they reprint from GT. Xinhua does the same. Due to Ai’s general charisma and the fact that he hasn’t really done anything wrong, the Chinese media (and GT in particular) had but one stick left to beat him with: “the West.” And, man, have they worn out that stick.
Here is a smattering of what happened when the worm turned:
“Ai Weiweis will be washed away by history,” November 16, 2011, by Shan Renping:
Artist Ai Weiwei told foreign media recently that some 30,000 people lent him in total 8.8 million yuan ($1.4 million) to pay the tax bill and fine… Is 30,000 a big number, compared to China’s population of 1.3 billion? Even weibo has more than 100 million users. [...]
Ai is a symbol of those dissidents that win full support from the West. Chinese people who have interest in politics all know him. But for those who don’t know him or cannot remember him, are not interested in his game of political confrontation.
The West has supported many dissidents in China. The Western media once regarded Wei Jingsheng, imprisoned in 1978 for 15 years, as “the father of Chinese democracy.” That “father” is now in some little corner of the US and journalists don’t even bother to report on him. [...]
We must say that without the support of the West, Ai is literally nothing. [...]
Their prospects are closely connected with China’s misfortune… Then let’s hope their luck is not so good. Their appearance could serve to keep a prosperous China vigilant.
“West’s support of Ai Weiwei abnormal,” April 16, 2011 (a year after Ai is initially arrested), by an unnamed editor:
Since early April, the arrest of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been used by some Western media as a stick with which to bash China’s human rights situation.
As a Chinese citizen, Ai undoubtedly enjoys favorable treatment from the West, which constitutes an intrusion of China’s legal system. The Western bias toward Ai results from his confrontational attitude to the government. [...]
The belief that there is political persecution in China is a fallacy. Instead, the country is witnessing the unfolding of democracy. At the same time, that does not mean the people mentioned above can do whatever they want in the name of democracy, nor does the West have the right to set up a roadmap and timetable for China.
It is abnormal to hype up Ai’s case – the West seeks to refute China’s basic political system by paralyzing its legal system. The West will undoubtedly oppose any future verdict on Ai Weiwei, as it aims to put down Chinese values.
“Take note of grass-roots opposition to dissidents,” June 18, 2012, by Yu Jincui:
Ai Weiwei and the Dalai group have both been rejected by the mainstream of Chinese society but are portrayed in a noble light by the West. They have been granted high status by a few Western politicians and political forces. This high recognition abroad, however, is not acknowledged among the majority of Chinese. [...]
At the most, people are often puzzled as to why activists and separatists are given so much attention by the West. The Chinese public values more rational approaches to moving this huge country forward. But this simple feeling is often ignored by the West, thus putting itself at odds with Chinese mainstream society.
There are many more, including this week’s “Elton John’s outburst met with indifference” by the “man” himself, Hu Xijin. (Note: Five unsolicited responses have come forward to tell me that Elton’s “outburst” was met with a reaction, and that it was positive.)
Obviously, John’s [yes, he calls him John] unexpected action was disrespectful to the audience and the contract that he signed with the Chinese side. He forcibly added political content to the concert, which should have been nothing more than an entertaining performance. If they had known that this concert would be dedicated to Ai Weiwei, many in the audience would not have come to see this concert. [...]
Western society is seriously biased against China. When US magazine Foreign Policy compiled a list of 100 global thinkers from around the world, the first Chinese on that list was blind activist Chen Guangcheng, and the second was Ai Weiwei. Even to Chinese people who have sympathy for these two people, this list may seem ridiculous. [...]
The selection of Chen and Ai makes people wonder whether the word “thinker” in Chinese and English have different meanings. We can just say that some Westerners are increasingly unable to contain themselves over China’s rise. They cannot control China through normal means and they are more likely to rush their fences.
A LITTLE BIT OF REVENGE
It’s important to mention that Ai didn’t take all this lying down. In November 2011, he fought back by releasing the personal phone number of Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Global Times who pens GT’s editorials and is, as it happens, one of the worst living “human beings.” I have no particular love for Ai Weiwei — art is, let’s be honest, a bit poncey — but everyone is a huge fan of screwing with bullies and getting away with it.
Hu Xijin, a consummate professional, took the fight to his state-funded Communist Party propaganda rag for fair and balanced coverage. We have confirmation that he penned this himself:
So, the man who was detained, extra-judicially, for 81 days (along with his completely innocent staff) caused the propaganda monsters to “suffer” from prank phone calls.
Other gems in this piece include:
The staff of Global Times have no personal grudge against Ai. Global Times has published several commentaries concerning Ai’s case since April but has made no personal attacks against him.
He must have missed the “Ai is literally nothing” bit.
Besides, these comments were conducted against the background of Western media and foreign governments meddling in Ai’s case. Global Times’ response is normal work for a newspaper.
It isn’t. It’s the “normal work” of a childish bully with the full financial and political backing of a brutal autocracy. Also, please refrain from calling the Global Times a newspaper. It tends to make people retch.
Take Ai Weiwei, he should be cautious about his behavior, by invading the privacy of his criticizers because of criticism against him, he negated the expectations of those around him.
My grammar check in MSword brings up three green lines in that sentence. So, assuming it can be made grammatically correct, it’s incorrect. Those around Ai seemed to be in full support; some even went to prison for him, all while GT spewed editorials from its ears about how he is a pawn of the “West.”
The Chinese government should take measures to regulate the online order and curb the increasingly rampant violations on personal rights, including invasion of privacy and death threats. The relevant authorities should take actions to crack down on these illegal acts while safeguarding the freedom of speech.
Ai Weiwei did his thing on Twitter, so… wish granted. You can’t crack down on things you’ve already banned.
That is what happens when propaganda turns on you, and it is not an isolated case. Similar things have happened with politicians like Bo Xilai, nations like Myanmar and even websites like Google. The moment something stops being convenient, the dogs are released and the floor is covered in blood.
In the end, the lesson here is that China has invented enemies, and you can become one in a second if you overplay your hand while in the public eye. It just takes one spotty editor in one rolly-chair to decide that you are detrimental to “society.” From then on, you are an assumed dissident and a plank for China to beat its imaginary enemies just because they may or may not have tried to stand up for you.
That is, unless, you wade through it all, wade through the hate-filled commentaries, the government bullying, the arrests of the people you love and respect, the alienation, the jail time and official condemnations of your talents; then maybe, just maybe, you get to be a rock star whose Gangnam Style video garners worldwide attention.