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China versus the genius hooligan

Analysis: Can the Communist Party censor Ai Weiwei, China’s leading artist?

In recent years, his work has become increasingly political. In an apparent reaction to the Communist Party’s predilection for censorship and oppression, Ai has embraced transparency.

Before his arrest, his studio was often crowded with journalists. For her documentary, Klayman recorded him for some 200 hours, including private moments with his family. And he embraced a dangerous (for China) obsession with exhibiting his life and thoughts online, through his now-banned blog, and via a Twitter habit that sometimes burned many hours of his day. Although he tweets in Mandarin in a country where the messaging service is officially banned, he has more than 85,000 followers.

Ai’s travails with Communist officials reached a new nadir after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. As Klayman recounts in a PBS Frontline feature, a disproportionate number of the 70,000 fatalities had been in schools and other public buildings. These victims allegedly perished because of what the Chinese call “tofu construction” — shoddy workmanship in which the government officials in charge apparently sold off supplies and minimized costs so they could line their own pockets.

After the quake, the authorities clamped down on news of the controversy, refusing to release the names of the many schoolchildren killed. So Ai deployed volunteers to scour the disaster area, compiling a list of more than 5,000 names.

As the tension grew, so did Ai’s mischievous responses, in a cat-and-mouse game with the party that became perhaps his most courageous body of art. Officials mounted massive surveillance cameras outside his studio, so he took photos of them and posted them online, and he created marble likenesses of them.

On one trip to Sichuan, police broke into his hotel room at 3 a.m. and beat him, so he tweeted it, posting audio from the incident online; photos of the altercation made it into a European gallery and news magazine. In January, officials destroyed his new, million-dollar studio in Shanghai, a building that they had urged him to construct.

He filmed the demolition and declared it one of his most powerful works; Klayman’s footage of the event shows him in an orange hard hat, grinning with pleasure as a building that took him two years to construct turned to rubble. Each time the government tried to intimidate him, he used their own assaults against them, turning it into art and distributing to his followers.

With Ai in detention as part of a widespread crackdown to prevent a Chinese Jasmine Revolution, the question now is whether he’ll ultimately prevail once again.

It’s in no country’s interest to have such a renown and creative citizen behind bars. It is particularly awkward for China’s rulers to oppress the man who designed the venue for their coming out party. Moreover, in its quest to climb the economic value chain and provide its millions of new graduates with jobs, China is at a moment where it needs to embrace creativity, to innovate and to develop the arts, entertainment and other high-value sectors.

By detaining him, the party has effectively neutralized his activities. But they have also introduced him to millions of people who didn’t know him before. Google searches for his name have spiked since the arrest. And his arrest has inspired protests in the art world and beyond, becoming a thorn in the side of the party.

Unlike other dissidents, Ai has a charisma that can’t be imprisoned. His art will live on, regardless of what the party does to him.