As we entered the arrival hall of the Beijing Capital Airport the other day, we were greeted by throngs of teenagers and young women holding up signs of a young man, the sort of teen idol who would have found a home in "Lisa Simpson's Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. These fans were decked out. Many wore custom green T-shirts, and some of their signs had flashing diodes. With every new entry into the hall, they surged against the guard-rail, squealing in the manner of teenage girls the world over.
"Who is it?" I asked a bunch of them.
"BIE!!!!" they screamed—ecstatically.
I still haven't figured out who "Bie" is, but when he did arrive, a very slight, young Asian man, the crowd swarmed around him, tossed bouquets of flowers, took countless photos, pressed against the elevator that takes you downstairs, to where the taxi lines are.
It was a strange way to start a trip that in all honesty, I wasn't much looking forward to.
The "situation" here had become, from the outside at least, increasingly depressing. The detention of Ai Weiwei represents a new high (low?) in the government's recent crackdown of activists: an internationally respected figure, a cultural ambassador, who helped design the Bird's Nest, whose father was one of China's most respected poets. All those things only protect a person so much, particularly a person like Ai Weiwei, whose actions seemed designed to provoke the state to reveal its true nature.
It's particularly depressing because many of these "activists" were only "acting" within the boundaries of China's own constitution and laws, which as toothless as they may be, at least represented an attempt to move toward a rule of law. Opinions from those far more knowledgable than I differ on the extent to which this is a departure from recent norms or a continuation of a tightening that's been in place since at least 2006, but what's hard to dispute is that the boundaries of the nascent civil society and acceptable public discourse seem to have narrowed. Witness this editorial from the Global Times, which manages to sound hysterical, incoherent and sinister all at once:
Ai Weiwei is an activist. As a maverick of Chinese society, he likes "surprising speech" and "surprising behavior." He also likes to do something ambiguous in law. On April 1, he went to Taiwan via Hong Kong. But it was reported his departure procedures were incomplete.I don't know why I was surprised, or if I even was. I've been coming to China for over thirty years, and I've seen this cycle before. But it's hard to reconcile when externally the country has changed so much, when there are contemporary arts districts and hip bars and metal bands and avant-guard architecture. Where teenage girls scream for their latest pop idol.
Ai Weiwei likes to do something "others dare not do." He has been close to the red line of Chinese law. Objectively speaking, Chinese society does not have much experience in dealing with such persons. However, as long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day.
In such a populous country as China, it is normal to have several people like Ai Weiwei. But it is also normal to control their behaviors by law. In China, it is impossible to have no persons like Ai Weiwei or no "red line" for them in law.
The West ignored the complexity of China's running judicial environment and the characteristics of Ai Weiwei's individual behavior. They simply described it as China's "human rights suppression."
"Human rights" have really become the paint of Western politicians and the media, with which they are wiping off the fact in this world...
...Ai Weiwei will be judged by history, but he will pay a price for his special choice, which is the same in any society.
Most of the reporting on the crackdown attributes it to "Jasmine Revolutions" in the Middle East. Some of my friends are of the opinion that it has everything to do with the upcoming transition of power (due to play out in 2012), the need to look "tough" to the old guard. I'd guess it's a combination of those things. For all the Western commentators who opined that China was in no danger of the kind of unrest seen in the Middle East, the government here isn't taking any chances.
Risk or no, the insecurity demonstrated here is telling.
Anyway, I wasn't very enthusiastic about taking this trip.
A couple of days in Beijing, after seeing old friends who are so bright and funny and unique...returning to my favorite coffee place near the Drum Tower, where the two young women who work there recognize me and greet me after absences of months at a time...the small interactions I have with people, the friendliness and humor...it's hard not to fall in love again.
It's just the kind of love that will break your heart, is all....
UPDATE: Check out my friend Richard's revealing post about a conversation with a Global Times editor...it speaks volumes about the Chinese government's curious mixture of arrogance and insecurity, to quote James Fallows' just published piece...