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What's next in the case for Ai Weiwei?

Economic considerations, moral positions and political strategies between Germany and China have become entangled in an unfortunate manner in the case of Ai Weiwei, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

It's actually a simple case. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei suffered an injustice, yet again, for his political views - including his art, which he uses to criticize the government. It's not right and it needs to stop.

From the point of view of a German exhibition organizer, the furor means a lot of media attention for the Capital Cultural Fund and the German government's State Commission for Culture and Media. That's one of the reasons for the largest single exhibition of Ai Weiwei's work, which is currently being shown in Berlin. The success of this exhibition was pretty much a sure thing. Visitors to the exhibition, titled Evidence, are doing something good for themselves, China and the world - regardless of how art critics may moan about his work.

The politically correct enjoyment of art

Ai Weiwei's art serves as a release for Germans who want to vent their anger when it comes to China's increasing economic power. A German study of the Chinese telecom supplier Huawei recently showed that nearly 60 percent of Germans see China's political power as threat. The exhibition is politically correct, as people say these days.

Frank Sieren (photo: Frank Sieren)

DW columnist Frank Sieren in China

But the reality is much more complex than the more than 150,000 people who so far have waited to enter the exhibition may think. Economic considerations, moral positions and political strategies have, unfortunately, all been grouped together. The fundamental problem is the more Ai Weiwei is persecuted, the more famous he becomes. The more valuable is works of art become and the bigger the payoff for the German subsidies are for the exhibit - all of which makes Ai Weiwei's harassment increasingly counterproductive for China's state security apparatus.

Ai Weiwei as a cultural leader

But let's start at the beginning. Ai Weiwei has annoyed Chinese politicians with his apt and critical views. For some time now, however, there has not been a majority willing to arrest him because of his political opinions. One reason was that his father, Ai Qing, was a famous poet and tightly interwoven in the establishment. He was banished to western China by Mao from 1958 to 1976 and he was among the reformers close to Deng. His son Ai was also one of them, which has made authorities hesitant to take action against him. Ai became something of a cultural prince.

That's why it was possible for him in 2002, along with the Swiss architectural agency Herzog & du Meron to apply for - and promptly be awarded - the right to design the Beijing Olympic Stadium, which has become known as the bird's nest.

But the political mood regarding Ai Weiwei flipped in 2008, at the latest, when he blamed corruption for the deaths of thousands of children when schools collapsed during an earthquake in the Sichuan province. Some 70,000 people died during the earthquake. Ai has not let up when it comes to this issue and has made a name for himself on the world stage - particularly in Germany - as an artist and critic of the government.

Bird's nest in Beijing (photo: How Hee Young/ picture alliance)

Ai Weiwei was awarded the right to design the Beijing Olympic Stadium - also known as the bird's nest.

His arrest didn't come out of the blue though. In January 2011, his studio in Shanghai was knocked down at his own expense, with authorities saying he hadn't had a building permit in the first place. Just about a year before the demolition, the very same authorities had asked him to establish his studio exactly where they tore it down. Three months after the demolition, Ai was arrested and held in a hotel room which was turned into a prison. The official charge brought forward was tax evasion.

Donations to help a commercially successful artist

As soon as he was released after 81 days, people in Germany showered him with distinctions and honors. Ai wasn't just accepted into the Berlin Academy of Arts, he also was offered a position as visiting professor at the University of the Arts. Germans donated about a million euros ($1.4 million) to help the commercially successful artist pay an alleged tax debt of 1.7 million euros. Germany was the only place that Ai was greeted with this strange, almost religious glorification. Why Germans are that way is worth an entire text of its own.

The German cult surrounding Ai Weiwei peaked in 2013, when he, as a Chinese citizen, was given the opportunity to design the main room of the German pavilion Germania at the Biennale in Venice. That was followed by the world's biggest exhibit of Ai's art in Berlin. It's a show that's well worth seeing - with conceptual art that's accessible to laymen - it gets political issues across in an ironic manner without making aesthetic compromises.

Strong conceptual art

Can one portray the dark sides of the Chinese boom better than by displaying vases of the Han dynasty which were covered in car paint? The old form is still visible, but the historic traits and scars of the vases are forever and always covered up.

The minimalistic work "Forge" is another example. Ai presents armoring iron in an aesthetic way that makes it fit into every loft in Berlin's wealthy Prenzlauer Berg district and resembles concept art by US artist Brice Marden. The biggest difference: Ai's works are politically charged in a dramatic way and therefore also criticize conceptual arbitrariness of Western art and don't just express political criticism of China. The armoring iron for his works was taken from the remains of the schools that collapsed in an earthquake in 2008 in China's province Sichuan - the schools were not as stable as they were supposed to because the cadre embezzled money.

Ai Weiwei (photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Ai Weiwei is hugely popular in Germany

Criticism of that incident caught the party to the quick. By arresting Ai Weiwei, the hardliners of China's leadership showed how powerful they are. Even the "bold" son of Ai Qing is not safe from them. The reformers then had the opportunity to explain the hardliners just how stupid they had been: The security apparatus has made Ai Weiwei much more famous than what the censors deemed desirable. The hardliners now no longer want to provide a stage for Ai. That's the reason why he can roam freely in China.

In addition to that, no one prevents him from producing his very critical government art in China - he can exhibit his art in Berlin without any problem. His staff is also allowed to travel freely. Furthermore, what's surprising is that the Chinese government never complained to the German government about its financing of Ai's exhibition. That's something that had been ignored by most German media given the history with a notable matter of course.

The political sphere expects a gesture of humility

What's left is the last hurdle to restore normality. And now it's getting even more complicated: The Chinese authority cannot return Ai's passport just like that, they argue. Dismissing the case would translate to admitting guilt. No one in Beijing wants to pay that price unless one is forced to do so in a China that's in accordance with the rule of law. And China has a long way to go.

That's why those in China's political sphere, who have been pushing for Ai's release, need a symbolic gesture of humility from him. They would wish for Ai to stop voicing criticism for a couple of weeks, or to praise the government for what it has already achieved. Or at least to get him to make clear that this was an important step towards normality - that his works can now be on display in Berlin freely and funded by the state.

Ai Weiwei exhibiton in Martin-Gropius Bau (photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The installation "Souvenir from Shanghai" uses material from Ai Weiwei's destroyed studio in Shanghai

But Ai Weiwei apparently doesn't want this. Why should he? First of all, he's simply not the type. Secondly, why should he show his gratitude to those who wanted to break him?

But it has a price that Ai Weiwei is - depending on which side you take - unreasonable or defiant: Those in politics, be it in China, but also in Germany, who have been lobbying for him, have started to lose interest in helping him in a time where it's very likely that he will be allowed to travel soon. Ai Weiwei needs to be clear on that. The possible damage could potentially be huge and could well go beyond his actions. His attitude is grist to the hardliners' mill who now tell the reformers: How long are you going to let him mess around with you?

In Western politics, patience with Ai is not endless, either. The question is raised whether one can politically profit from helping free Ai Weiwei? Or more to the point: How many voters are going to reward these efforts?

To rule out the possibility that these arguments are misinterpreted: Ai's freedom gives him the ability to refrain from participating in this game. But he has to bear the consequences. Consequences that his actions could have on others - people whose freedom depends on a political solution.

A persecuted artist has higher value

Ai's curators and advisers don't make this power play easier. First and foremost, they have one interest: The price of artwork should steadily rise for as long as possible. They get high commission for every piece of art that's been sold. No one can blame them for being thankful - in secret - to China's secret police and ask themselves the matter-of-fact question: How does Ai Weiwei hold more value? With or without a passport?

Some among them might also reach the conclusion that the status quo is not such an uncomfortable one. The strategy would then be to drum up support in a loud and awkward manner. That makes it all the more unlikely that the case will actually come to fruition.

DW columnist Frank Sieren is one of Germany's foremost China experts. He has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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