Ai was arrested in April for “economic crimes” and held in an undisclosed location for more than two months. Authorities claim Ai owes $2.4 million in back taxes, an accusation he disputes but is paying with the help of his fans. Now, he says one of his associates is being investigated on child pornography charges. Technically, Ai and his wife are under house arrest; he cannot leave Beijing, cannot write anything critical of the government and cannot talk to the media.
But he did anyway. Newsweek magazine carries an essay by Ai in which he describes Beijing as a “prison,” without referring specifically to his own quasi-imprisonment. We know what he means, though.
Beijing is two cities. One is of power and of money. People don’t care who their neighbors are; they don’t trust you. The other city is one of desperation. I see people on public buses, and I see their eyes, and I see they hold no hope. They can’t even imagine that they’ll be able to buy a house. They come from very poor villages where they’ve never seen electricity or toilet paper.
Every year millions come to Beijing to build its bridges, roads, and houses. Each year they build a Beijing equal to the size of the city in 1949. They are Beijing’s slaves. They squat in illegal structures, which Beijing destroys as it keeps expanding. Who owns houses? Those who belong to the government, the coal bosses, the heads of big enterprises. They come to Beijing to give gifts—and the restaurants and karaoke parlors and saunas are very rich as a result.
Beijing tells foreigners that they can understand the city, that we have the same sort of buildings: the Bird’s Nest, the CCTV tower. Officials who wear a suit and tie like you say we are the same and we can do business. But they deny us basic rights. You will see migrants’ schools closed. You will see hospitals where they give patients stitches—and when they find the patients don’t have any money, they pull the stitches out. It’s a city of violence.
It’s a bleak description of the reality that lies underneath Beijing’s many tourist attractions and showy attempts to be a world-class city. In fact, he expresses the kinds of thoughts (“open secrets”– 公开的秘密) that dwell in many Chinese citizens’ minds, but are rarely expressed to anyone but trusted friends and family. Although the horrors of the Cultural Revolution are long past, most people here choose to avoid any “imperial entanglements,” as it were.
Ai has a quixotic belief that the government should uphold the national constitution, which guarantees — in theory — that all citizens have civil rights. Despite the huge gap between theory and practice, Ai continues to fight authority. It’s hard to say if he do any better than the guy in the John Mellencamp song.
ADDENDUM (10/28/2014): To view a selection of Ai’s works, pay a visit to Artsy.net‘s virtual gallery.