August 28, 2017
Revisiting the fine art of the Weiwei-ism for Ai Weiwei’s sixtieth birthday
by Melville House
Today, as the widely admired Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei celebrates his sixtieth birthday, we’re marking the occasion by revisiting this piece on his book of aphorisms, originally published in 2012.
I don’t know why it has taken me so long to see the connection between aphorisms and tweets, but Ai Weiwei has grasped it and made a book out of it, to boot.
The book is Weiwei-isms, a collection of tweets, aphorisms, musings, and other commentary on topics like freedom of expression, art and activism, and the future of China, and it explicitly references Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, as well as the bookended classical and digital literary traditions of saying short things, but many of them.
The Weiwei-isms on offer don’t sound particularly surprising, but they are still a welcome reminder of the persistent stand Ai is taking on issues that continue to trouble China. For instance, Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review lists two from the book (and more info is available on the Princeton University Press website here):
I call on people to be “obsessed citizens,” forever questioning and asking for accountability. That’s the only chance we have of today of a happy and healthy life.
The Internet is the best thing that could have happened to China.
Ai may be his country’s most famous netizen, but there are legions behind him, and Eveline Chao over at Foreign Policy has a recent and extremely useful article on the myths about, and the reality behind, the “Great Firewall.” Among other insights, Chao details that the government itself doesn’t do most of the censoring, but rather makes private companies responsible for it:
Companies must sign a “Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for China Internet Industry” in order to get a Chinese Internet Content Provider license, and the government holds all Internet companies operating within China, both foreign and domestic, liable for everything that appears on their sites. This includes comments on social media, and even on online chat and instant messaging. Companies deemed not in compliance can have their business license revoked and be summarily shut down.
What this means in practice is that, because the guidelines for what is and isn’t acceptable are vague, companies, each with its own staff of censors, try to anticipate what will be considered problematic and end up enacting a greater degree of censorship (but also a more unpredictable one) than if it were being explicitly dictated from above.
Chao also includes the rather juicy detail that Fang Binxing, architect of the blocking mechanisms that make up the Great Firewall, has, on his own computer, no less than 6 VPNs (Virtual Private Networks, used for accessing blocked content). She’s less optimistic than Ai Weiwei about the role of the Internet in potentially bringing about change in China:
But the Internet is not enough in the absence of the right political, social, and economic factors. And tools of free speech can be tools of surveillance.
Now there’s an aphorism for you.