Americas

Ai Weiwei, Xi Jinping, Barack Obama, and the Modern Surveillance State


“Everything is Art, Everything is Politics,” after all, but hardly a ringing endorsement for the U.S. government or Barack Obama. Ai Weiwei may be one of the most internationally well-known critics of human rights abuses and of the modern surveillance state in China (and now the United States), but he is hardly alone in his critique.

Chinese artist and well-known political dissident Ai Weiwei has faced no shortage of hardships.  In 2011, Chinese authorities  jailed (read: disappeared) him for three months, and not long after his release the government accused Ai Weiwei of tax evasion and ordered him to pay $2.4 million.  His passport, which the Chinese government had held from him for four years, was returned to him just recently, barely in time for him to head to England for a retrospective of his work at the Royal Academy.  The latest insult occurred upon his return from the UK in early October: when he entered his apartment, the artist found several listening devices hidden in the walls.  He posted pictures of the offending electronics on his Twitter and Instagram accounts, commenting, “Can you hear this?” along with a short video of fireworks going off in a bin next to one of the devices. 

Ai Weiwei’s unpopularity with the Chinese government is no surprise, given his history of criticizing the regime’s human rights policies.  He rose to global prominence during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when he helped design the famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium while openly deriding the Olympics as a government-controlled event inaccessible to ordinary citizens.  Many of his works since then have aggravated Beijing by drawing global attention to China’s human rights situation.  The pieces he created as a reaction to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, for example, and the Sunflower Seeds exhibition he produced for the Tate Modern gallery as a commentary on mass production and the role of the individual in society, have contributed to his reputation as an activist artist eager to expose the world to his views on life in modern China, while tarnishing his relationship with Beijing.

China is not the only state Ai Weiwei has spoken out against, either.  In a poignant op-ed in The Guardian published shortly after Edward Snowden’s leak, the artist compared U.S. government surveillance to Chinese state surveillance, drawing parallels between NSA’s watchful eye and his own detention, where he was observed 24 hours a day.  To put his criticism of American activities in perspective, this same detention also happened to be the basis for part of Ai Weiwei’s ongoing retrospective exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, in the form of a series of steel boxes with small viewing windows showing the artist being interrogated during his 81-day incarceration.  Everything is Art, Everything is Politics,” after all, but hardly a ringing endorsement for the U.S. government or Barack Obama.

Ai Weiwei may be one of the most internationally well-known critics of human rights abuses and of the modern surveillance state in China (and now the U.S.), but he’s hardly alone in his critique.   Activists in both countries were hopeful that human rights would be a prominent topic during President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the U.S. at the end of September, and that Obama would take a firm stance against what is seen as China’s worsening human rights record: according to Amnesty International, Chinese authorities have cracked down on over 200 human rights lawyers and activists, and Beijing is currently considering a law that would allow the government to police foreign NGOs operating within China’s borders.  Unfortunately for these activists, though, any mention of human rights abuses was demonstrably absent from discussions.  Cyber security took center stage—understandably so, given the recent high-profile hacks blamed on China—with the two governments announcing a historic agreement against intellectual property theft via cyber espionage.  Climate change, nuclear security, sustainable development, and counter-terrorism also made the agenda, among numerous other issues.  Human rights and freedom of speech, however, remained solely the provenance of the protestors gathered in the streets.

Political pundits and human rights activists have publically criticized the Obama administration for being remarkably mute on China’s crackdown on political dissidents, which seemed surprising, given Obama’s background as a civil rights lawyer.  Yet this silence is far from remarkable, given the ongoing furor in the U.S., the UK, and other seemingly liberal countries, over Snowden’s revelations about the depth of government surveillance.  Bringing up surveillance and repression during President Xi’s visit could have certainly led to some embarrassing moments for Obama, so tactfully avoiding the issue makes political sense: Obama is doubtlessly aware of the old adage that “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” 

Ai Weiwei said it best at the end of his op-ed: “We must not hand over our rights to other people.  No state power should be given that kind of trust.  Not China.  Not the US.”  Before the United States can apply any type of political pressure on China for Beijing’s surveillance practices, habit of jailing dissidents like Liu Xiaobo, Liu Xia, Ilham Tothi, and Gao Yu (to name a few), and suppressing criticism of the state, Washington will have to change to its own policies regarding domestic surveillance and holding suspected terrorists in indefinite detention.  Until then, Washington lacks the credibility necessary to encourage its Most Favored trading partner to adjust its own practices.


Michelle is a Senior Project Director at a business development firm in the Washington, D.C. metro area and a graduate of the London School of Economics MSc International Relations program. She is a staff writer for Charged Affairs, where her focus areas include current events and international economics.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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