The Continued Trial of Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, at Tompkins Square Park, New York, 1986

The Chinese Communist Party continues to make life difficult for the artist Ai Weiwei. Following a three-month detention earlier this year on account of "economic crimes", Ai has resumed his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government through social media outlets like Twitter and Google+. Once little known abroad, Ai's international profile has risen through appearances in the Western media, such as this recent article published in The Daily Beast detailing his incarceration.

To say the least, China is not amused. The Communist Party recently slapped Ai with a $2.4 million tax bill for a company he reportedly doesn't even own, prompting the artist to solicit financial loans from his legions of admirers. Now, having paid back a significant portion of the sum, Ai now faces a new challenge: an investigation that his assistant "spread pornography online". The material in question was a photograph the assistant took of Ai and four women, posing in the nude.

Beyond the laughable notion that the portly, hirsute Ai could be the object of pornographic lust, Beijing's latest ploy to silence the artist raises a burning question: why do they not simply detain him again? Clearly, Ai Weiwei isn't going to give in and love Big Brother anytime soon. Why would the Communist Party even bother allowing him to continue his criticisms of the government?

As in many questions regarding the Communist Party, no clear answer exists. Yet one explanation may lie in Ai's enduring popularity among the Chinese population. Unlike the imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, Ai Weiwei built strong nationalist credentials as the co-designer of the iconic Bird's Nest stadium, an enduring symbol of Beijing's hugely successful 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Likewise, Ai's investigations of school collapses after the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, an issue that generated enormous popular outrage in China, further aided his popularity. Despite his problems with the state, Ai seems to have a far greater grasp of the Chinese national psyche than other dissidents.

As a result, Beijing has likely concluded - for the moment at least- that any heavy-handed movement against Ai would do more harm than good. In the meantime, half-measures like the tax bill and pornography accusations are likely to persist.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.