Ai Weiwei, China’s best-known dissident artist, is called God Ai by his supporters. Ai helped design the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics and more recently his Sunflower Seeds installation created a splash at the Tate Modern; but Ai continues to be a thorn in the side of the Chinese state. His blogs and microblogs were long ago been blocked in China after his controversial investigations into events such as non-accidental deaths in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake angered the authorities.
His international standing presents difficulties for the authorities: should he be ignored or co-opted? Ai claims that two years ago, the Shanghai authorities asked him to build a studio to help develop an arts district it was developing to increase the city’s cultural status. Now the same authorities have ordered that his USD$1.1m studio be torn down. They claim the building is illegal — that the correct permissions were never obtained.
Ai declared that he would have one of his sensational parties to “celebrate”: this time everyone would have something in-season to eat: 10,000 river crabs. For anyone in-the-know the word “river crab” is important. According to the New York Times the river crab is:
…a sly reference to the Mandarin word hexie, which means both river crab and harmonious. Among critics of China’s censorship regime, hexie has become a buzzword for opposition to the government’s call to create a harmonious society, free from dissent.
On Friday, Ai was placed under house arrest meaning he would be unable to attend his own party, planned for this weekend. Reports of his angry reaction are here and here.
Ai’s detention focused the media’s attention on the party and the studios pending demolition. Within China there has been criticism and accusations that Ai is seeking free publicity from the foreign media; some argued that he advertised the party for too long, almost seeking a reaction. However much the Western media report it, no reports have appeared in the Chinese press.
Ai’s house arrest was due to end at midnight last night — his supporters took it upon themselves to celebrate in Shanghai without him. Ai told AFP the police left his Beijing home a little earlier at 11pm, too late for him to reach the party. Nonetheless at the Shanghai banquet his fans had their say.