13 Jan 2011

China's smash and grab timing

Back in October Ai Weiwei, one of China’s most celebrated artists, handed me nine hand made sunflower seeds from his vast exhibition in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall. I’ve kept them in the ticket pocket of my jacket ever since.

Not long after he gave them to me, Ai Weiwei went home and soon found himself placed briefly under house arrest after trying to stage a satirical crab feast in protest against an order from the authorities that a studio he had built in Shanghai was to be torn down due to the “unlawful land” it had been built on. The order had come after the artist had made films about two individual who had run seriously foul of Chinese laws.

Out of sight out of mind, I’d forgotten about charming Ai Weiwei until last night. Indeed I’d been thinking instead about the man due to become China’s Prime Minister.

Li Keqiang has been on a high profile visit to the UK – he’s done at least £2.5bn of business to the joy of David Cameron’s Coalition Government. Li Keqiang’s four day visit ended yesterday.

The great turbines of his jet airliner were already churning as the hammer blows began to rain down on Ai Weiwei’s studio in far away Shanghai. By 9.00pm last night, with Li Keqiang safely airborne Mr Wei’s studio had been smashed into fragments no bigger than the sunflower seeds he’d given me. What a charming juxtaposition. What control. The order to demolish had originally been issued last July, just as the new studio had been poised to open. Ai Weiwei’s exhibition was safely opened at Tate Modern by October. And now, with this high profile Chinese visit over too, so was Ai Weiwei’s studio.

Did David Cameron, William Hague, Alex Salmond, or anyone else who met China’s next Prime Minister ask about Mr Ai Weiwei?

Ahead of the visit we hacks asked what news conferences, press opportunities, and interviews were going to be possible with Li Keqiang. Answer: None. Oh, and did the Government think to guide the great Chinese leader toward Tate Modern’s doors?

UK trade and jobs, or Chinese human rights? Naturally, UK trade and jobs. Should we care?

Tweets by @jonsnowC4

14 reader comments

  1. adrian clarke says:

    Should we care ?Well clearly we should ,especially if human rights are involved.Yet in this article i see no suggestion that Mr Weiwei is being beaten,tortured or anything else.From your article Jon ,he committed an offence(in China) of making a film of two people who had seriously contravened Chinese law,His punishment was to lose the facility that he used to make those films.He is not locked up in a notorious jail,but is under house arrest.Just as we issue control orders against subversives.Rightly or wrongly that is China’s way ,too, of dealing with what they consider subversives.
    You describe Mr.Weiwei as an artist , but it is with great difficulty that i could see his exhibition at the Tate as being anything remotely like art.

    1. Tim Burns says:

      To be clear, the people Mr Weiwei filmed committed the offence, not Mr Weiwei himself. If China supported free speech then this would not be an issue. Indeed if similar measures were implemented here then several TV channels would find themselves unable to make documentaries/drama around real life crime.

    2. adrian clarke says:

      Tim,I never suggested anything other than he made a film of two people that committed a crime against the government.I do not believe it has ever been suggested that China supported free speech,either.That though at the end of the day is for China and the citizens of China.In a multi national integrated world i fear we have little choice other than to do business with them.By all means we the individuals should/can support disidents , but it is not for us to try to put our beliefs and behaviours on a foreign government.That to me is why the invasion of Iraq was illegal and the invasion of Afghanistan very dodgy.We are no longer a colonial power so should have no such pretensions

  2. anniexf says:

    Art as metaphor, Adrian?

    1. adrian clarke says:

      I’m still looking for the metaphor in an artistic way Annie,and all i can come up with is he had a great many artificial sunflower seeds that were to be walked on.Did he mean that a blossoming new life was being trampled??Whatever he meant it is about as artistic as my unmade bed :)

  3. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    There is a subtext that the studio was smashed in a defiant government act, rather than out of legal validity.?

    I wonder what people would think in the UK if someone brought down their property or configured a law to bring someone to ruin unlawfully. Believe me, there is nothing more angering and hurtful to have freedoms taken away and human rights ignored at the hands of a collective.

    What is charming? your placing of events related to seeds and destruction side by side or the actual control shown by China and the floundering nature of an artist expressing his own longing for growth? Then again have you grown a few more inches since you pocketed the seeds next to your chest.

    We have little sensible option but to go along with Chinas business deals. Our culture is so intwined with many others now, we have to learn how to cooperate more than ever before. This being the case, if indeed it is, the pressure we should bear are human UK rights for our own first, to lead by example.

    There is prima fascia an image of China, then an undercurrent representing reality , so what is different from any other nation?

    Wherever I see infringement of human rights I will speak out.

    1. adrian clarke says:

      Margaret, governments do not do defiant acts!!! It is citizens who defy and snow bloggers.:)

  4. Jim Flavin says:

    China is now a large Capitalist state – and Capitalism and Human Rights – and Capitalism or Authoritarianism and Human Rights just do not mix . Re human rights in general world wide – they may exist in legisaltion – but not so much in people minds . I dont see much difference between China / USA or many other countries re this . It was tough on that guy to have his studio – and probobly lots of his work smashed -but Human rights are smashed to bits every day – and in many countries – if one disagrees with the popular ideas wheter Politics or Religion in that country. People do not want their ” cherished ” beliefs wheter religous or political questioned too closely . What happened to the Humans rights of the Native Americans where millions were annihaiated ??. One of the worst infringments of human rights is the indoctriantion of the young with religous beliefs – that are obviosly pure farmyard manure yet little is said about it .- Sadly the list is nigh endless .
    Back to US – are they getting even nuttier ??

  5. adrian clarke says:

    Jim the perfect result of what i have been saying about you.You post a very good blog about human rights and religion and then go and spoil it by trying to get an American dig in
    Back to US – are they getting even nuttier ??
    http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/01/201111074425968803.html.If you wish to believe in the outpourings of ALJAZEERA,a rank anti western, anti American organisation , that is the mouth piece for Islam , so be it .To me it spoils an excellent insight into human rights and religion

    1. Jim Flavin says:

      Adrian – Al jazeera is none of the things u – and others suggest . Maybe have a look at it more constantly . It is NOT anti US – – but it does report waht the US does – which at times is not very nice – no more than any other imperial power . It is a ray of light [ like C4 ] in a world whose media are being taken over by a few .
      Are u saying this man did not say – waht he in fact said – . This is Incitement to hatred – supposing a Moslem leader had said this regarding Christians -it would be widely reported .
      Regarding digs at USA – well yes – their Foreign Policy stinks and they pay little heed to International Law . They do more or less wahtever they want to do – and are presntly engaged militarily in over 50 countries .
      Obama stated publicly on either Fox or CNN that he would bring US values worldwide – That to me means he is seeking what amounts to world domination . Thankfully he will be disappoited – whetr the next major Imperialist power – has any interest in ordinary peeople – other than to use them – and throw them to one side afterwards – remains to be seen – but is IMO a foregone conclusion .

  6. Philip Edwards says:


    Western capitalism couldn’t care less about human rights. The world’s two main rogue states, Britain and the USA, have demonstrated that plainly in Iraq and Afghanistan, have demonstrated it in the past, and will do so again the future.

    Transnational profiteering by British and US companies is all that matters. Lives and societies are inconsequential. Establishments in both of these rogue nations will either kill directly or hire a proxy government to do it for them; meanwhile, they will pay lip service to human rights.

    The examples are replete, from Indonesia, to Indo-China, to Africa, to South America – even to Europe, as shown in Yugoslavia. Add in the British and other European empires and their genocides, slavery and thievery and the picture is near-complete and incontestable.

    China is now faced down the same road. If they don’t turn back there is only one logical conclusion. Here it is:

    And if China goes as rogue as the British and Americans…………

  7. Kate says:

    Off topic- so apologies!
    Jon, I was rather hoping on last night’s Ch4 News
    that at some point during the piece about Scotland Yard having the Woollard case all wrapped up in a matter of weeks, you’d mention their failure to do likewise in the year old Ian Tomlinson case where one of their own is implicated. Funny that!

  8. Bob says:

    There’s something prophetic about a bbc documentary I saw some months ago in which Ai Weiwei picked random pieces of his own ceramic sculpture and destroyed them. As if through some Zen process of elimination – fleeting attachment – they were destroyed. I can’t help but think in someway this is a metaphor for politics, war or glorified destruction with more of a symbolic emphasis. In the same sense such care is taken over these sunflower seeds and the politics that involves so many people to make it. The scale of these seeds match the fragments left of his studio thus creating polar opposites of creation and destruction. There’s something mystical about that man. Global economic power, democracy and art could only ever provide a shattering conclusion. The philosophy upon which this work was created could be imagined more from empty pockets rather than otherwise. Obviously treating powerful foreign visitors with an air of sensitivity is necessary but you can’t help get the impression that the gentle approach will never make a significant impact on such a disjointed workforce. Only recently new employment law has been proposed to make corporate workers here more expendable. Rights?

  9. Alexandr says:

    Democrats the USA insist on introduction of protectionist measures for a national policy. We shall not go into details, we shall not describe all horrors of this rate, but we shall tell the resume in this occasion. Sooner or later any industrial production is not becomes competitive capable in relation to China. There is a main and obvious question as the protectionism will operate on a global scale…

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