China Cracks Down on Artist… Oh, and River Crabs

800_ap_weiwei_101106As a writer for a blog on human rights, more about one doesn’t wake up in the morning thinking the topic of the day will be a party in which 10, patient 000 river crabs are served.

But we all wake up to surprises.

In Shanghai, rheumatologist this weekend’s surprise came when thousands of chi-chi partygoers had to cancel their plans after the authorities decided to place Ai Weiwei, a highly influential 53-year-old Chinese artist planning a big shindig, under house arrest.

Had Ai Weiwei revealed documentation on China’s execution of more people per year than all other countries combined? Had he exposed corruption at the highest levels of the communist party? Had he issued a provocative treatise on the lack of freedom of movement, press or religion?

No. Ai Weiwei had planned a party, a damn big one, as an ironic celebration of the decision by the authorities to demolish his Shanghai studio two years after he was invited by a senior Shanghai official to build it as part of a new cultural district.

In July Mr Ai was notified that the studio was illegal, while none of the other artists building studios on the same site were issued with demolition notices.

Adding a bit of provocative salt to an already open wound, Ai Weiwei responded with an announcement of a massive party to mark the studio’s destruction, including plans to serve some 10,000 river crabs at the event.

Never the one to miss an opportunity for a pun, Ai Weiwei’s river crab stunt was a brilliant play on words: hexie, the Mandarin word for river crab, also means harmonious, which has become a sarcastic euphemism among Chinese activists for government censorship (done, of course, in the interest of a “harmonious” society).

After the event was hyped up by dissident Chinese bloggers and the international press, the authorities stepped in, placing Mr Ai under house arrest in his Beijing home until the early hours of this morning.

It doesn’t seem to have worked. The arrest didn’t stop hundreds of Ai Weiwei’s supporters – many of them famous artists, journalists and musicians – from attending the demolition.

Party or no party, a demolition is apparently not an event worth missing.

“Mr. Ai said he thought the unnamed Shanghai powers were taken aback by the attention to the demolition and the party and reacted in typical fashion,” wrote the New York Times’ Michael Wines after interviewing Ai on Friday. “And by doing so, they created a piece of performance art that called more attention to the embarrassment they were seeking to suppress.”

Mr. Ai is an increasingly challenging figure for the Chinese government to deal with. The son of one of China’s most famous poets, Ai Qing, he has enjoyed much greater latitude to say and do what he pleases than other Chinese critics.

A famous artist and architectural designer in his own right, Ai Weiwei first made international headlines by quitting the consortium building the Beijing Olympic stadium, accusing China’s leaders of trying to present a false image of the country.

He then launched a high-profile investigation into the deaths of some 5,000 schoolchildren in the Sichuan earthquake of May 2008. He was beaten a year later by Sichuan police while visiting.

It is not clear exactly when Ai Weiwei’s studio is set to be demolished (we contacted a number of Chinese activists, who didn’t know), but anyone with updated information should post it below.

Also, any further ideas as to what we could all do to help Ai Weiwei avoid the destruction of his studio?

Photo credit: Archinect

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