Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ai Wei, Liao Yiwu, the Dalai Lama...and Nouriel Roubini

I’ve had several articles up at Asia Times in the last few weeks.

Ghosts of Wenchuan marks the third anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake of May 12, 2008. 

Two of China’s best known dissident artists, Ai Weiwei and Liao Yiwu, make Wenchuan an important part of their critique of the Chinese political system.

Ai focussed on the apparently disproportionate number of deaths of children who perished when shoddy “doufu dregs” schoolbuildings collapsed.  He organized citizen investigators to come up with a list of children killed, organized a reading of their names, and created an installation on the facade of a museum in Munich spelling out the phrase “She lived happily on this earth for seven years” (the phrase of a mourning mother of one of the victims) using 9000 children's backpacks.

9000 may well be chosen to represent his estimate of the number of schoolchildren who actually died.  His count and official statistics are at the 5000 level, but it is alleged that the death toll was twice that.

Wenchuan is close to the center of Ai’s criticism of the political and moral rot he sees in Chinese society under the CCP.

Liao Yiwu, a writer, has become more and more well known in the West for his reportage on the marginalized citizens of China that the government doesn't want you to know about. He went into the quake zone and compiled a record, Earthquake Madhouse: A Record of the Big Sichuan Earthquake, of what he saw and heard.

A lot of it apparently did not reflect particularly well on the government’s response, especially its policy of treating the local populace as blame-placing and compensation-seeking troublemakers and placing the quake zone under virtual military lockdown during the rescue, recovery, and early rebuilding period.

Both men labored under government hostility for their advocacy.  Liao was denied the opportunity to go to Australia to accept an award for his eathquake book in 2009, and the Chinese authority recently pulled him off the plane just as he was about to embark on an international tour that would promote his latest book, The Corpse Walker.

As for Ai, he was punched in the face while in Chengdu attempting to testify at the trial of Tan Zuoren, an earthquake investigator who was sentenced to five years in prison for his activism.  The punch apparently caused hemorrhaging in Ai’s brain, and he had a procedure in Munich a few weeks later to drain it.

In April, Ai was detained for suspicion of “economic crimes”, which is what I guess they call lese majeste these days.

The Chinese government would like everybody to remember the $1 trillion yuan it claims to have poured into the reconstruction of Wenchuan.  However, a lot of people apparently don’t see it the same way.  On the third anniversary of the quake, Southern Metropolis Daily ran a quickly-censored editorial invoking Ai’s art as a mourning offering to the dead schoolchildren.

For a lot of activists Wenchuan looks like one of those naked lunch moments, when they witnessed and were nauseated by what they saw to be the regime’s true nature.

I also wrote two Tibet-related pieces.

One was a quickie, Osama and the Real Dalai Lama, on the absurd media fuss that the Dalai Lama has “implied” that the killing of Bin Laden was “justified”.  He said nothing of the sort, and the news reports that raced around the world on the wings of the Internet and little Tweetie feet were all drawn from a single piece of misreporting by the Metro reporter of the LA Times.  The story was useful primarily as a lesson that newspapers behave just like blogs.  They need to fill their screens and follow the buzz.  A false controversy is just as good as a real fact—better, because there is no limit to the juiciness of a falsehood-- so they are happy to peddle BS first and ask questions later if at all.

The second Tibet piece, Tibet’s Only Hope Lies Within is built around McClatchy correspondent Tim Johnson’s new book Tragedy in Crimson.  He argues that the Tibetan political movement is doomed by the power of China and the resulting indifference of all the nations that matter to Tibetan political aspirations.  I take the somewhat different tack that local Tibetan identity—and activism--will survive the tsunami of investment and Han immigration moving into the region.  In fact, marginalization of Tibetans in their own homeland seems to be evoking even stronger feelings of solidarity and grievance as many of the young find refuge in monasteries.

Finally, I wrote a piece China has tool-box to head off high-speed crash about Dr. Doom—Nouriel Roubini’s—prediction that the Chinese economy is due for a burst bubble and hard landing pretty soon.  I agree! But posit that the Chinese government has an active Keynesian doctrine and capacity and will to intervene that the US apparently lacks, and therefore has some effective tools to deal with its problems.

photograph of Ai Weiwei installation by Zoltan Jokay from  


Justin said...

That's what I bloody hate about people like Ai. They think that shoddy schools isn't a function of being a developing country without strong regulation and enforcement, it's a function of being democratic or non-democratic.

So those schools wouldn't have been built if the country was a democratic developing country instead of a authoritarian developing country? The fudging of numbers killed wouldn't have been so complete but those children would still been just as dead.

If you don't have a fucking solution, you're an irrelevance to the problem.

That rant over I liked your recent articles on Tibet.

J. said...

Nice piece on the Dalai Lama.

bernadette smith said...

Dear Liao,
this week, I went to the Sydney Writers Festival and spent much of the time waiting in lines hoping to get a seat at one of the free lectures. I am unwaged and subsist on government welfare. Along with up to 30% of my fellow citizens I belong to Australia's underclass as I am denied the right to work in this country. It is not because we have been critical of the government but because we were born without the right class connections. Our country it is not a meritocracy and is riven by inequality. Here it is not what you know but who you know that determines your fate in life.

Anyway after waiting so long for a free seat at the Sydney Writers Festival and just missing out so many times I thought my luck had finally turned when someone offered me a free ticket to the Liao Yiwu lecture: “ The dangers of what we think we know”. Well Liao, I guess I wasn't so lucky after all because when I arrived a columnist from the Murdoch press, Miriam Cosic of the Australian newspaper, was there to tell us that the Chinese government wouldn't let you come to the Festival. Cosic explained to the audience that there had been another crackdown on artists and writers in China. She read your letter thanking would-be sponsors. It went on to say how cruelly your government has treated you and how free Australia must be for inviting you. Nodding knowingly to her middle-class audience (many of whom were clutching fistfuls of lecture tickets at $20 and $30 a throw - in one hand alone I saw enough to feed a welfare family for a week) she pontificated: “We here in Australia have no idea what it must be like to live under constant government crackdowns as they do in China”.

Funny that, because only the previous week the Federal budget announced yet another government crackdown on welfare recipients starting with teenage mums and disabled youth. Teen mums are to be separated from their babies at six months old to do compulsory job training or Work for the Dole programs. Young disabled citizens will not only need specialist medical reports to support their claim for an allowance but letters from at least three employers saying they are unable to employ them because of their disability. The crackdown will put these Australians on the same degrading treadmill of supervision, pernicious activity tests and surveillance as the unemployed who daily run the risk of being breached for even minor infractions. Every waking hour is to be spent justifying their existence to a parasitic bureaucracy and job service goons. Then when they crack under the pressure and suffer mental breakdown, a bunch of Canberra public servants in the guise of Get Up! call for more psychiatrists. This is medicalising the social problems of inequality, lack of meaningful work, economic exclusion and institutional bastardisation of Australia's underclass.
So next time you send a letter to be read at a writers festival, you could spare a thought for the oppressed of your guest country rather than playing into the hands of Australia's oligarchy.

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