China dissident speaks on the rule of law

In an exclusive interview last week at his studio in Beijing, renowned Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei turned a cold eye on today’s China and pointed to radical changes that cannot come quick enough. The artist spoke candidly with American Bar Foundation Research Professor and Center on Law and Globalization Co-Director Terence C. Halliday, noted sociologist and expert on human rights and criminal justice in China, and the globalization of law and politics.

Ai Weiwei’s art has captivated and shocked audiences internationally, most recently at the Smithsonian, with startling original pieces, such as the Sunflower Seeds at London’s Tate Modern, the massive, brilliant display of 9,000 children’s backpacks on the exterior wall of Munich’s Haus der Kunst Museum, and the distressing video of Ai Weiwei smashing a rare 1,000-year-old Han Dynasty vase. His association with the design of Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium made it an instant global icon.

As he has famously said, for Ai Weiwei, “all art is politics, and all politics is art.” So what has he to say at this moment about politics in China, where it is and where it is going?

The current situation is bleak. “It is the lowest point right now,” asserted Ai. The Communist Party does not tolerate difference. “The whole system has become a weapon for the people in power to crush those who are different from them.” Ai told Halliday that the party has the strongest control over its citizens of any rulers in human history.

“Never has there been a state like this,” he continued. “Even in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, there were always different races and religions, but not in China. The people in the shadows, like Tibet and in [Muslim] Xinjiang, have never had power. That is why they burn themselves.”

Said Ai, “the control of social opinion” at present offers almost no space for dissent. “No room is available,” he said, when citizens, “because they put one sentence on the Web, can be taken to a police station.” They are followed, frightened, lose their jobs, and their family is harmed. “There is no space for any type of announcement of individuality from the state power.”

If you dissent from the state, if raise your voice, “you will be crushed.”

Ai sees police power everywhere. “This nation has become a police state,” he said in 2007, and the situation has only deteriorated in the years since. The police are not there to enforce the law but to enforce social stability by any means. In fact, “it is rule by law now, not rule of law.” The police will not be bound by law.

“There is tremendous danger,” Ai said, because the police “try to deal with all problems—family, religion, community, marriage.” It is all done through the police, so the “police become everywhere.”

The party must rely almost entirely on the police, he said, because the party itself lacks “any kind of trust or credibility. Their legitimacy is not there.” Even though “there is total corruption,” the party “refuses really to reform.”

Ai Weiwei laments that the party will not be accountable to its people through elections. “How can you have a nation 60 years old and not let people vote? It is beyond comprehension,” he said.

In Lenin’s memorable words, “what is to be done?”

Ai declared that there must be freedom of expression. “It is an exercise of humanity. Its scope is beyond politics. In any society, in any stage of human development, freedom of expression is most valuable to give identity.”

“Without it,” he added, “you are modern slaves. A human is without a brain in a totalitarian society.”

And, there must be the right to vote. “If you are a powerful nation, you should trust your people and not be afraid of them,” said Ai.

Ai insisted that human rights cannot be realistically implemented unless there is rule of law. In place of party and police control over the courts and judicial system, China must guarantee rights through an independent judiciary. But at present the judiciary is subservient to the police and the party—in fact, it is an arm of both.

Very few lawyers dare fight for human rights, he said. Most lawyers protect the law established by the government to serve the government. And when lawyers do face “the arrogance of power,” they confront daunting barriers to defend their clients.

Halliday’s interview with Ai Weiwei is part of a China-wide study of criminal defense and human rights practices in China. Funded by the American Bar Foundation and National Science Foundation, the research has involved extensive interviews with lawyers across China, analysis of Chinese print and online media, and study of international organizations focused on rule of law and human rights in China.

Halliday has taught at the University of Chicago and has affiliated appointments at Northwestern University and Australian National University.

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