Courage on Trial in China

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Credit Dadu Shin

BERLIN — In April 2011, I was kidnapped by the Chinese undercover police at a Beijing airport and detained at a secret location for 81 days. After my release, the government charged me with tax evasion, even though most of the questions during my confinement centered on my political activities. They demanded that I pay back taxes and a fine totaling $2.4 million, and when I asked why the shakedown, one official replied, “If we don’t penalize you, you won’t give us any peace.”

I decided not to give them peace. I contacted Pu Zhiqiang, one of the few courageous lawyers willing to defend political activists who suffer abuse at the hands of China’s authoritarian regime, to file an appeal. Zhiqiang took my case. I was impressed with his thorough preparation and clear thinking. In court, he was sharp, persuasive and fearless.

Over the years, Zhiqiang has defended many journalists, petitioners and human rights activists. His legal advocacy, along with his valor and superior skills, made him a target for political persecution. The leadership sees his rising influence as a threat.

After being detained for the last 19 months, Zhiqiang was put on trial on Dec. 14 by the Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and for “inciting ethnic hatred,” based on seven of his microblog posts that criticized Communist Party policies. The government found him guilty on Tuesday and gave him a three-year suspended sentence. The verdict automatically strips Zhiqiang of his attorney’s license — and eliminates the platform from which he has given voice to the voiceless.

As the world gushes over China’s economic power, no one should forget that its rise comes at the cost of freedom and human rights. Sadly, many people inside and outside China have resigned themselves to the fact that the judicial system submits to the power of the Communist Party.

Read more at The New York Times

Dragons, Legos, and Solitary: Ai Weiwei’s Transformative Alcatraz Exhibition

In the prison’s cramped cells, hallways, and psych wards, sounds and visuals subtly shame the unjust.

"With Wind," an installation at Ai Weiwei's Alcatraz exhibition Shane Bauer
“With Wind,” an installation at Ai Weiwei’s Alcatraz exhibition Shane Bauer

By Shane Bauer in Mother Jones

There is a question that every prisoner ponders once the realization sets in that his freedom is gone: Can the mind be liberated when the body is not? It’s been a while since I’ve asked myself such a thing—I was released from an Iranian prison three years ago—but a Chinese dragon in a former prison factory at Alcatraz makes me think about it again. Its multicolored face is baring its teeth at me when I enter the cavernous room. In this space, prisoners washed military uniforms during World War II.

The dragon is the first of many installations in the art exhibition by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, called @Large. The beast is a startling greeter—its whiskers are paper flames—but the impression softens as I look closer. The long body, shaped like a traditional Chinese dragon kite and suspended by strings from the ceiling, snakes gracefully throughout the open factory floor, illuminated by the soft afternoon light spilling in through a multitude of little windows. Bird-shaped kites are suspended throughout the room. It is quiet. This prison room feels like freedom.

There is more to it. Every segment of the dragon’s long body is painted with flowers from countries that seriously restrict the civil liberties of their citizens, such as Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. Other parts of the dragon are adorned with quotes by prominent dissidents. One is from Ai Weiwei himself: “Every one of us is a potential convict.”

Alcatraz is an appropriate place for an exhibition about political imprisonment. While the island’s tourism literature focuses on hard-core criminals like Al Capone and the Birdman, it has also held hundreds of nonviolent political prisoners. Hutterite pacifists were put in solitary confinement here for refusing to serve in the military in 1918. World War I conscientious objector and anarchist Philip Grosser spent part of his year and a half on the island in “The Dungeon” where he subsisted on bread and water in complete darkness. Jackson Leonard was sent to Alcatraz in 1919 after distributing Industrial Workers of the World literature on an Army base. World War II veteran Robert George Thompson did time there in the early 1950s after joining the Communist Party USA.

Read more at Mother Jones

A Muzzled Chinese Artwork, Absent but Speaking Volumes

The Chinese sculptor Wang Keping at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

BEIJING — A wood sculpture of a larger-than-life man’s head whose gaping mouth is stuffed with a plug — a piece of Chinese protest art from more than 30 years ago — was supposed to be a star attraction at a retrospective here.

The startling visage, called “Silence,” born as a cri de coeur against the censorship of the period after the Cultural Revolution in China, was shown briefly during an artistic spring in Beijing in 1979 and 1980, before being banished.

A work called “Silence” was supposed to be a star attraction, but the center did not submit it to the authorities for review, believing it would be rejected.

Even today, says the creator of the work, Wang Keping, who lives in exile in France, his signature sculpture is too hot. “Silence” is notably absent from the exhibition of his works from his years abroad at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in the fashionable 798 Art Zone in Beijing.

“If it were part of the exhibit, there would be no exhibit,” Mr. Wang said as he showed a visitor dozens of dark-wood abstract sculptures, some of them hinting at the bodies of men and women, made in his studio outside Paris.

These newer pieces, including two towering black sculptures that in style and shape faintly recall the heads on Easter Island, proved acceptable to the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture. The bureau must see in advance the number and subject of artworks imported for exhibits.

The Chinese authorities were in fact never given a chance to judge “Silence” anew.

Read more at The New York Times