Artist and activist Ai Weiwei was placed under house arrest in Beijing on Friday, apparently to prevent him going to Shanghai to host his “River Crab Banquet” – a party to mourn the demolition of his Shanghai studio.
Michael Wines in The New York Times:
Mr. Ai said he built the studio only after Shanghai officials, on a campaign to burnish the city’s cultural credentials, implored him to. But in July, they ordered the finished building demolished at the command of anonymous higher-ups…
… At the planned goodbye party … Mr. Ai planned to serve river crabs — a sly reference to the Mandarin word hexie, which means both river crab and harmonious. Among critics of China’s censorship regime, hexie has become a buzzword for opposition to the government’s call to create a harmonious society, free from dissent.
Although Ai remained trapped in Beijing, his river crab party went on in Shanghai with hundreds of guests, some of whom attended despite braved intimidation from various authorities.
Tessa Thorniley attended and came back with photos, and comments on the event from Ai himself (whom she spoke via telephone) and from a variety of guests. (There is a bigger gallery of Thorniley’s photos here.)
I saw the pictures on Twitter, and my friends and my assistant called me about it. I was excited about the turn-out and I’m sorry I could not make it.
The event has been a success. Almost everyone who came was called or threatened by the police, but they still came, which showed a lot of courage. Something like this has never happened before, so it’s encouraging for the future, and many of the people today were young people, so that’s a good sign too.
I spent the day being interviewed by over 50 media outlets, although only one of them was domestic – the Global Times English edition. I think the government has ended up making a fool of itself. The banquet would have been a low profile event if they had not gone and put me under house arrest. That created huge media attention.
I was surprised the police did not intervene today, but perhaps it is because Shanghai cares more about its international image than Beijing. When the Beijing police put me under house arrest, that put a lot of pressure on the Shanghai government. In the end, they must have decided not to make things any worse and shut it down because then it
would have got a lot more attention in the foreign media. Because David Cameron [the UK prime minister] is coming next week, the BBC have been broadcasting the event, so the Shanghai government has been smart to keep it low key.
As for what happens to the complex, I have been quite firm that I will not donate it or sell it, since the government has decided it is illegal. The government actually wants to buy it from me, but I have invested eight million yuan and the government has not explained to me why I am allowed to sell it to them if it is illegal. The complex is a good piece of art. Actually my friend has offered me his land to build an identical complex once this one is torn down.
Reporters have asked me why I do not leave China, since the trouble would then stop. I agreed with them that if I left China I would have it easier, but I will not leave just because of the trouble.
You Yuping, 19, the nephew of You Jingyou, an activist in Xiamen who
was jailed in April for one year for reporting that a local woman had died after being gang-raped in February 2008, and that some participants were local officials.
I study animation in Fuzhou and I traveled up from there for the event. I’m very excited to be a part of this event and I’m glad that I’m part of the group that advocates social progress in China, and I’m happy to meet all the different people here. I was influenced by my uncle in high school to get interested in knowing something about the pursuit of freedom.
My parents worry about me, and they do not want me to be so active. I know how to protect myself for now, not to be too radical, although I was summoned by the police for the two-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake this year, partly because I was using Twitter, and partly because of my uncle. My parents have never criticised my uncle though.
In my art school the majority of the students and teachers do not have a very high political awareness, although some of the teachers like Ai Weiwei’s work. Recently there has been a definite increase in control at the university. I know someone who was summoned by the police after he was spotted talking to a foreigner in the town. Also the students all have to study Mao and Deng thought. I think I’m different from my classmates, but I hate it when people are apathetic and say there is nothing we can do. I have not thought yet about relationships and marriage, but I think when the time comes I will have to leave and go abroad. I do not want to do that here in China.
Zhan Hua, a 27-year-old IT worker from Hangzhou
I came up last night and stayed on the site. There were 150 beds here. Over 40 domestic media outlets were invited to the banquet today but none showed up.
Even if I do not understand or appreciate Ai Weiwei’s art fully, I can see that his work expresses freedom and openness. I began jumping over the Great Firewall at university and it changed my point of view. When I got to see the outside world, I realized a lot of the history we had been taught was quite partial.
I’ve taken part in Ai Weiwei’s projects before – the one where we spoke out a name of a child from the Wenchuan earthquake and the one when 30,000 Twitter users gave their real names.
Also I met him at a dinner in Hangzhou in May this year. Before I went, I was called by the local police. They told me I had been blinded by faith and kept lecturing that Ai Weiwei is supported by foreign hostile forces. They asked me not to go to the event in May, and asked me to sign a piece of paper guaranteeing I would not go.
They even got the head of my company’s workers’ union to pressure me. They said if I went, I would not have a job when I returned. After they said that I was doubly determined to go.
So I went and I did not get any calls afterwards and the company did not put pressure on me. There are too many people like us. I was very excited last night about today. I stayed up until three or four chatting with the other people who came. They came from all over China and it felt like a big family event. It was very sweet. I hope there will be more events like this in the future because back at home I can never share my thoughts or get my family to understand me.
Liu Wei, 31, a manager, and Jing Wei, 32, a web editor. Married.
We came yesterday morning by train from Beijing with a lot of camping equipment. But in the end we got a bed here. We thought it was really a shame for this place to be torn down. We’ve been to Ai Weiwei’s studio in Beijing quite often and we are friends with his assistant.
We felt this was unfair so we came to be supportive and to protest. The demolition is unreasonable because this place is in the middle of nowhere. It is quite vindictive of the government. In truth, Ai Weiwei did not have a proper licence to build it, but since this is in the countryside, it should not matter so much.
Ai Weiwei is a man who looks for truth and justice and is not seeking to impress people. He admits it when he makes mistakes and he wants other people to also take responsibility. His work is combined with society and he does not want to be an artist in an ivory tower. He has been through a lot now, and so he is quite calm even when he gets
pressured and criticized. He has met thousands of petitioners and seen huge injustice and he can now be level-headed, even when it comes to being put under house arrest.
Lao Niu (Twitter handle), 27, from Qingdao.
I made the decision to come quite quickly, but then hesitated after I booked the air ticket. I was worried that it would be called off at the last-minute, and I’ve been called by the police before. I’m not a huge fan anyway – I like some of Ai Weiwei’s thoughts and approaches, but not all. He is one of the few people who can stand up and speak for others though.
As soon as I got here my worries faded because no one was demonstrating or putting up banners or even wearing sensitive t-shirts. It was a peaceful and joyful gathering. I took the metro here and I saw lots of twitterers on the bus. I realized everyone on the bus was going to the same event. To my surprise, when I got here I found some grandpas, but then I realised they were petitioners.
It would have been even better if Ai Weiwei had come, but it was still a great day.
Update (November 8, 2010): Ai Weiwei is no longer under house arrest.
- The New York Times: China police confine prominent artist
- The Guardian: Ai Weiwei under house arrest, China artist Ai Weiwei supporters gather for party at condemned studio