By Atticus Ignelzi, Ani Nagesha, and Qiong Wu
The Perils of Government Criticism
Who: Ai Weiwei
What: Ai Weiwei’s Blog
When: June 1, 2009
Where: The People’s Republic of China
Why: For criticism of the Chinese Government
On May 12, 2008, a disastrous 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan, China. More than 5,000 children were crushed and killed by falling rubble due to poorly constructed school buildings. Twenty days after the earthquake, the Chinese Government had still not announced the names of the fallen children. Seeing the government’s lack of transparency, Ai Weiwei, a prominent Chinese artist, responded by initiating a citizen’s investigation to find out the dead students’ names and information. The main outlet for Weiwei’s criticism was his online blog. On Children’s Day 2008, a national Chinese holiday to honor children, he penned a somber blog post entitled “Silent Holiday.” Weiwei mourned, “The public still doesn’t know who these departed children are, who their families are, who neglected to reinforce the schools with steel, and who mixed inferior concrete in their foundations and concrete supports when they were constructed” (152). In this sorrowful post, Weiwei accuses the Chinese Government of knowingly and intentionally constructing structurally unsafe buildings. To prevent the public from learning about the dire consequences of this widespread corruption, the Chinese authorities were reluctant to publicly release the names of the children killed in the natural disaster.
(Little Girl’s Cheeks: a documentary about the citizen’s investigation of the Sichuan earthquake.)
Weiwei argued that the Chinese government prioritized other spending over the structural integrity of their school buildings. He was particularly critical of the government’s spending on the 2008 Summer Olympics, which China hosted immediately following the Sichuan earthquake. According to a Wall Street Journal article written by Geoffrey Fowler and Stacy Meichtry, the Chinese Government spent approximately $42 billion to host the games. In his blog, Weiwei condemned:
For those foreign visitors who will have traveled from foreign lands, the Olympics are little more than watching who runs faster. They aren’t a matter of life and death. A society lacking democracy is incapable of orchestrating true joy for its people. If we had diverted one-thousandth of these resources to Sichuan, these schools would have never collapsed (170).
Weiwei’s commentary on the Sichuan earthquake is merely one instance in which he expressed his political opinions online. In his blog, Weiwei criticized police brutality, unlawful search and seizures, unethical treatment of prisoners, and the lack of creativity in modern Chinese culture (137-138, 140). These frequent diatribes against the government made him an extremely controversial and dangerous figure in China.
On June 1, 2009, the Chinese authorities shut down Weiwei’s blog. “It was not surprising to anyone, not the artist, or his public,” the translator of Weiwei’s blog, Lee Ambrozy, described in an interview. The Chinese Government felt that the societal stability would be affected by Weiwei’s “grassroots activism” and the public would lose confidence in the government after the large exposure of government corruption. Ambrozy explains:
His work helping to organize grassroots activism in Sichuan after the 2008 earthquake was especially unwelcome by authorities. Not only were Sichuanese official deeply worried about it, the central authorities were uncomfortable with the counter-narratives he was putting together through documentary films.
Today, China has one of the strictest internet censorship programs in the world. Censored topics include pornography, political criticism, and various topics that would adversely affect the rule of the Communist Party of China. The existence of such intense censorship reflects the political caution and conservatism of the Chinese Communist Party, which has a history of authoritarian policies dating back to the birth of the country. From 1966 to 1976, Chairman Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution to crush potential dissident political forces and ensure the centralization and stability of power. To accomplish this goal, Mao limited the freedom of expression of his citizens. If they expressed any form of disagreements toward communist rule, they would be coercively executed. Such oppressions occurred constantly in the following decades, one famous example occurring in 1989 when peaceful protestors in Tiananmen Square were attacked by military forces. After this incident, the Chinese government attempted to censor the events’ information from the public access in order to avoid criticism and disappointments, thus preventing political turmoil in the society (MacKinnon 41).
Since Deng Xiaoping introduced China to the world with the Reform and Opening-up Policy in 1979, the top leaders in the Communist Party have become even more worried about western values destabilizing the political structure of China. “One of Deng’s favorite sayings in the early 1980’s was: ‘If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in’” (MacKinnon 32). Deng metaphorically describes western values, such as democracy and freedom of expression, as flies, which shows the Chinese government’s unwelcoming attitude toward the liberal elements entering China as a result of globalization. In 1994, when the Internet finally arrived in China, the Chinese leadership could do nothing but open internet access to the public in the effort to develop economically. As MacKinnon puts it, “the Internet is yet another plane on which the Communist Party wages its ideological battles against foreign ‘flies’—attempts via the open door to subvert the regime’s power and legitimacy” (33). A 2005 China Daily editorial by Wu Guangren encapsulates this view:
“As long as we use more ways of properly looking at the Internet, we can make use of the best parts, we go for the good and stay away from the bad and we use it for our purposes, then we can turn it around on them. Just as we can defeat the well-armed American military in the Korean war of yesteryear, we won’t be defeated in this huge Internet war by the various intranational and international reactionary ideological trends in the various areas” (Wu 2005).
To try to protect the country from “flies,” the Chinese Government established several legislative laws. The first law, called the Temporary Regulation for the Management of Computer Information Network International Connection, was passed in 1996. It required internet providers to be licensed and internet traffic to go through one of the approved web entrance. The second piece of legislation on internet control, the Ordinance for Security Protection of Computer Information Systems, gave the full responsibility of Internet security protection to the Ministry of Public Security (Taubman). Following the Ordinance, the Ministry of Public Security issued the Security Management Procedures in Internet Accessing in 1997, with Section Five stating the following:
“No unit or individual may use the Internet to create, replicate, retrieve, or transmit the following kinds of information:
1. Inciting to resist or breaking the Constitution or laws or the implementation of administrative regulations;
2. Inciting to overthrow the government or the socialist system;
3. Inciting division of the country, harming national unification;
4. Inciting hatred or discrimination among nationalities or harming the unity of the nationalities;
5. Making falsehoods or distorting the truth, spreading rumors, destroying the order of society;
6. Promoting feudal superstitions, sexually suggestive material, gambling, violence, murder;
7. Terrorism or inciting others to criminal activity; openly insulting other people or distorting the truth to slander people;
8. Injuring the reputation of state organizations;
9. Other activities against the Constitution, laws or administrative regulations” (Abbott).
With these legislative laws, the Chinese government regulates internet content with an iron fist. It created the infamous Chinese Firewall, which blocks not only numerous top-visited websites, such as Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, and YouTube, but also certain topics such as Tibetan and Taiwanese independence, human rights, the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and Falun Gong are also filtered out (Petley 105). The potential danger of being a blogger in China is tremendously high. The World Information Access Project, in reference to bloggers in China, Egypt and Iran, has calculated that “from 2003 to 2008 bloggers spent a total of 940 months in jail, and that the average time that a blogger was incarcerated was fifteen months” (Petley 99). One recent example of the dangers bloggers face in China occurred in 2008 when “a blogger in China was beaten to death by the municipal police whilst filming a demonstration” (Petley 12). Also in 2008, a Chinese teacher called Liu Shaokun was sentenced to “re-education through labour” on charges of “inciting a disturbance” for taking and uploading photos of the collapsed school that killed thousands of students in the Sichuan Earthquake (Buckley). By suppressing the voices of bloggers, the Chinese authorities use the threat of punishment to discourage other bloggers from posting objectionable content. These threats allow the government to control public opinion and censor information that would adversely affect communist rule.
The Chinese government is especially fearful and cautious about Weiwei because of his outspoken criticism toward communism and his influence on society. Through a combination of implicit and straightforward strategies, Weiwei conveys his political ideas through his artwork. In his art project Sunflower Seeds, Weiwei created a total of 150 tons of sunflower seeds handcrafted in porcelain to “allude to the globalization and mass production in China that caters to western consumerism” while inviting the audience to symbolically relive “the era of socialist planned economy with the collective worship of the ‘sun’ – Chairman Mao” (“About Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds”).
By devoting tremendous time into the project, Weiwei “brings into focus the significance of individuals, and the imposing strength when they gather together” (“About Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds“). As a famous artist and human rights activist, Weiwei was able to gather a force around him to make an actual impact on society. This caused the Chinese government to panic and scramble to silence Weiwei.
Sunflower Seeds: a video of Weiwei displaying and discussing his project
In 2011, Weiwei was arrested by the Chinese authorities for tax evasion as a means of political suppression. In his music album The Divine Comedy, released in 2013, Weiwei recreated the conditions he lived under while in solitary confinement. With rebellious lyrics, such as “When you’re ready to strike, he mumbles about non-violence” in his song Dumbass, Weiwei expressed his anger and disappointment toward police brutality, political oppression, and lawless authority in China.
Dumbass: a music video of Ai Weiwei’s song Dumbass
The consequences of censoring Weiwei’s blog are massive and still reverberate today. The first consequence is that Weiwei’s criticisms of the Chinese government were silenced and rampant government corruption was left unchecked. However, the effects of the censorship extend far beyond Weiwei himself. By censoring content that is critical of the Chinese Government, other citizens and artists are strongly discouraged from producing similarly disparaging material. “Artists and intellectuals knew that he had pushed it too far, and in that sense he had set new limits for this community,” Lee Ambrozy describes. Weiwei’s experiences have long-term ramifications for freedom of expression in China. Now, artists and others are reluctant to create material that might be deemed objectionable by the government. As a result, censorship in China is much broader than the content actively censored by the government. It includes work that was self censored due to the threat of censorship.
China policies have not improved since Weiwei’s blog was censored in 2009. The current President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, has only increased censorship, particularly of social media (Ambrozy). In their journal article “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression,” Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts study the current state of censorship in China. To determine what content the Chinese government finds objectionable, a vast array of social media platforms in China were examined, and the content was immediately downloaded after it was posted. Due to delays in the manual censorship process, the authors of the journal article were able to categorize the censored material. The main takeaway from this study is that the Chinese Government will tolerate government criticism, but strongly suppresses collective expression and action (King, et al. 327-328).
The findings of this study help elucidate the danger that the Chinese authorities saw in Weiwei’s blog. Due to his immense popularity and fame, Weiwei is capable of informing massive numbers of people about government corruption, and therefore could initiate collective expression and action. Weiwei’s political stances expressed on his blog, particularly his writing after the Sichuan earthquake, are prime examples of the content the Chinese Government attempts to purge from the internet.
Abbott, Jason P. Political Economy of the Internet in Asia and the Pacific: Digital Divides, Economic Competitiveness, and Security Challenges. Praeger Publishing, 2004.
“About Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds.” Faurschou Foundation. Accessed 21 October 2016.
Buckley, Chris. “China Quake School Critic Receives One-Year Sentence.” Reuters, 30 July 2008, pars 1-2.
Fowler, Geoffrey, and Meichtry, Stacy. “China Counts the Cost of Hosting the Olympics.” The Wall Street Journal, 16 July 2008, pars 1.
Guangren, W. “The Popularization of the Internet in China and the Bankruptcy of the Prediction in the New York Times.” China Daily, 29 November 2005, pars 7.
King, Gary, et al. “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression.” American Political Science Review, vol. 107, no. 2, 2013, pp 326-343.
MacKinnon, R. “Flatter world and thicker walls? Blogs, censorship and civic discourse in China.” Public Choice, vol. 134, no. 1, 2008, pp 31-46.
Taubman, G. “A Not-So World Wide Web: The Internet, China, and the Challenges to Non-Democratic Rule.” Political Communication, vol. 15, no. 2, 1998, pp 255–272.
Petley, J. Censorship. Oneworld Publications, 2009.
Weiwei, Ai. Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009. Translated by Lee Ambrozy, The MIT Press, 2011.
Keywords: Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei’s Blog, Censorship, Internet Censorship, The People’s Republic of China, China, Government Criticism, Sichuan earthquake