ON MAY 28, 2009, the readers of artist and activist Ai Weiwei's blog — hosted on Sina, a popular Chinese internet portal — logged onto blog.sina.com.cn/aiweiwei to find the message "This blog has already been closed. If you have queries, please dial 95105670." That message is still there, although the number has changed. Dialing it takes you to an unfolding origami of recorded options that would frustrate the most hardy call center veteran. When human contact is finally made, an explanation as to why the blog was shut down is not forthcoming. Nor, for those who've been following Ai's career, is it necessary.
Ai the artist wooed controversy long before he became known as a political activist. Son of the poet Ai Qing — a prominent literary figure in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) before he was denounced as a rightist in 1957 — Ai Weiwei has been on the fringes of free speech and democracy activism since the late seventies. In Beijing, he made a name for himself as a counterculture artist and architect, co-curating one exhibition with the English title "Fuck Off." In October 2005, as one of Sina's first celebrity bloggers, he found a new means by which to rock the boat.
In the months before his blog was censored, Ai used it to popularize a "citizen investigation" that aimed to document the names of the thousands of students who died in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, many as a result of "tofu dregs" construction that saw schools collapse while cadres pocketed the surplus from skimped building costs. Given the blog's loudmouthed criticism of Chinese authorities across a range of other issues, and the routine censorship of other internet sites, it was no surprise that Ai's platform got the axe.
"Ever since the Sina blog was closed," Ai has since remarked, "I've had a feeling of weightlessness." He moved his virtual home to U.S. servers at blog.aiweiwei.com, and threw himself into a new form of expression on Twitter ("In the Chinese language, 140 characters is a novella"). Online and off, he was as sharp a stone in the Party's shoe as ever, and continued his investigation in Sichuan despite run-ins with the police and a serious head injury he sustained during one such clash.
Last April, in an ugly twist, Ai was arrested. Vague charges of tax evasion fooled no one in the midst of the ongoing crackdown, with Ai falling almost completely out of contact for over two months. He was released on bail in mid-June and, despite the occasional return to rambunctious form on Twitter (@aiww), he has been tellingly quiet in the months since. A close associate of his told Reuters that Ai was threatened with ten years' imprisonment for inciting state subversion, and that his blog and Twitter feed were discussed "line by line" while he was in police custody.
Ai Weiwei's Blog is a selection of his posts in translation spanning 2006 to 2009, published the same month that Ai was arrested, and thrown into a fresh light by the drama that has ensued. An archive of one of China's most lively dissenting broadcasts, it tells a story that continues beyond its last page, the ending to which is still anyone's guess (one hopes for a "Volume Two").
The publication is also among the first of a relatively new breed: the book of the blog. Challenger to the essay collection and substitute for volume of correspondence (Collected Emailsdoesn't have the same ring), this is an exciting form. It already has its own moniker, the "blook" — a "Blooker Prize" was even awarded by the print-on-demand publisher Lulu from 2006 to 2007 — joined this year by the first book based on tweets (a "twook"?). Next year, a second Chinese blog in translation, written by the insouciantly-coiffed Han Han — author, racecar driver and reportedly the world's most-read blogger — will join Ai Weiwei's Blog on the blookshelf. And cheap publishing tools only a Google search away enable anyone to self-immortalize their online musings in print.
A particular pleasure of the blook form is the sense of a lengthy, real-time narrative compressed within a short space, like time-lapse photography. In Ai Weiwei's Blog, we live through Saddam Hussein's execution, Zinedine Zidane's World Cup head-butt, the Beijing Olympics, and President Obama's election all over again. And not quietly, recollected in tranquility, but right there in the heat of the moment.
Yet the most interesting narrative that emerges over Ai's four years of blogging is not the political drama but the changes in the author himself, and in his subject matter. The posts of 2006 are predominately about art and architecture, and — worthy treatises on the nature of space and photography though they are — are frankly pretty tiresome. I have kept a blog myself and can spot the symptoms of first post syndrome when I see it: wordiness, lofty topics, vague rhetoric rather than specific argument. Take this early post on architecture:
All love is self-love. All interpretation is self-interpretation ... Action can only be executed with actions. "Action" and "nonaction" is the same.
That may belong on a plaque in an art exhibition, but not on a blog, which demands livelier fare — as Ai himself would soon conclude.
Still, it's important not to overlook Ai's status as an artist in favor of his more sound-bite-friendly second life as a political provocateur. But some of the most arresting posts of 2006 and 2007 are those that showcase his belief in universal values:
My understanding of a "harmonious society" is one in which all "unharmonious" elements can exist simultaneously, allowing all contradictions and diversity to be displayed.
Or where the excoriating cynicism with which he views his government shows through. In one such post, he compares the Chinese state to
a battered ship afloat, a lousy ship, a destinationless ship that left its homeland ... and will never be able to turn back, nor will it ever reach any port of call.
The pace picks up in 2008 and 2009, when cynicism becomes confrontation. The turning point is arguably the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008, which fully exposed Ai's anger at the corruption and hypocrisy around him for the first time:
Before we let murky tears cloud our already unclear vision, we need to face up to the way the world works. The true misfortune of the dead lies in the unconsciousness and apathy of the living ... in our numbness toward the right to survival and expression, in our distortions of justice, equality, and freedom.
Emboldened by the Sichuan catastrophe, Ai responds to news in China as it breaks with wit and bite. On the controversial "Tigergate" scandal, in which photos of a tiger in South China were exposed on the internet as fakes: "[E]verything contrary to the power of public opinion is only a paper tiger." On emissions fees for Beijing cars: a list of other proposed fees, including "petitioning complaints fee," "silencing newspapers fee," and "menopause fee." On the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre: "With no right to memory, we choose to forget."
Like all of the best bloggers, Ai doesn't try to hide his personality. He is larger than life, with a penchant for the profane and an infant's delight in provocation. This can be great fun, as when he mocks the cultural pretensions of literary critics in a post titled "An Encounter with Idiocy on a Sunny Day." It can also drag. Talking politics, he often slips into unhelpful faux-Orwellisms ("absolute power has become absolute corruption") or mere insult-hurling ("SB," meaning shabi — "stupid cunt" — is his favorite). The writing can be bombastic, and an occasionally clunking translation doesn't help: "Their happiness was terminated with their lives in the very place where they read books" could have been rendered more simply as "Their happiness and their lives both ended where they studied."
If Shakespeare were a blogger, he might have said that Ai was "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Ai shouts loudly, and is good copy for Western media, but there is rarely something constructive on offer behind his bellowings. One Chinese netizen, Guo Du, commented that "perhaps he sees this as an easy way to get a Nobel Prize." Another, monthofsundays, "eventually came to think of the man as an unutterable bore." Charlie Custer of ChinaGeeks, who has frequently translated Ai's posts, describes the blog more charitably as "a good source of venting for that community, and for all of Ai's bluster he occasionally wrote some good stuff."
But in a country without a truly free public debate, bluster is useful. There are those in China who work quietly for change, and those who kick up the dust, who try to shock the nation into confronting some home truths and run a personal risk in the process. The environmental and AIDS activist Hu Jia — fresh out of prison for "inciting subversion of state power": the same charge Ai was threatened with — is another example. China needs both these types.
The problem is that the reach of Ai's blog within China was not nearly as wide as is frequently imagined by his Western admirers. He is a celebrity outside of China — a bushy-bearded dissident, middle finger raised to all the CCP SBs — but not inside it, where he preaches chiefly to the converted. A typical comment on his blog calls him "teacher Ai" and pillories the wangba zhengfu (pimp government) along with him. On Twitter, the Chinese community he broadcasts to is even more self-selecting. The site is behind a firewall which requires technical savvy and intellectual curiosity to climb (although Chinese counterparts to Twitter, such as Sina Weibo, are both available and massively popular).
Near the end of Ai Weiwei's Blog is an online Q & A between Ai and his readers about the citizen investigation in Sichuan, conducted two months before his blog was censored. One netizen asks:
When we want to do something, we wonder what we can do. There are times when, other than venting our frustration, we just feel that our powers are so miniscule. Mr. Ai, please give us some advice.
Perhaps he is looking to wrap up the discussion, but Ai's answer is short and simple: "Let's all vent our frustration together." Only now that the Chinese state is pressuring teacher Ai and his colleagues to behave in a more harmonious fashion, where will his disenfranchised audience vent? And what will they do instead if they can't?