WikiLeaks and artistic freedom in China


The latest WikiLeaks exposures of US government secrets have created a media storm. In reality the disclosures have been neither sensational nor particularly surprising. Secrecy is an unfortunate characteristic of organisations that believe they have special entitlements to behave in ways that would almost certainly attract public criticism.

It is interesting however, that the case of Ai Weiwei, which reveals much about the authorities in China, has attracted so little comment.

Ai Weiwei is a visual artist. By definition, artists are intellectuals whose interpretation of ideas challenges social mores. In Australia in 2008, a photographer's portraits of young models attracted criticism from then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Pressure put on galleries could have been regarded as attempts at censorship.

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When Ai Weiwei attempted to leave China recently however, the authorities intercepted him and have virtually placed him under house arrest. He is clearly seen as a threat to the state. The dictatorial attitudes of governments are revealed at times like these.

When Indonesia was slow to recognise East Timorese aspirations for self-determination, Indonesia's international reputation suffered along with the dissidents it suppressed. The same might be said of Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi, South Africa and Nelson Mandela and of any number of brutal regimes which fail to understand that governments earn legitimacy only when they serve their peoples.

China's treatment of Ai Weiwei symbolises its attacks on artists and dissidents and seems to be in the same despotic strain that stretches back to the massacre in Tienanmen Square. For its treatment of Ai Weiwei, China deserves severe international condemnation.

Ai Weiwei was in Australia in 2008. His works, which were exhibited in Campbelltown, showed a sharp sense of humour, compassion for victims of modernisation and ironic juxtaposition of the old and new, the authorised versions of events and the individual experience.

Ai Weiwei designed the 'bird's nest' stadium in Beijing, but then criticised the authorities' use of the Olympics for propaganda. His courage and determination and his artistic perceptions showed Ai Weiwei to be one of the most important individuals living in China.

Part of the current problem faced by Ai Weiwei is that the authorities feared his trip abroad could be used to express support for Chinese poet Liu Xiaobo. Languishing in prison, Liu received the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for his 'long and nonviolent struggle for human rights in China'.

One feature of Ai Weiwei's work at the Campbelltown Art Gallery was a film about writers. Their dissent has cost them dearly. In many cases, state harassment has rendered them ill. They are prone to alcohol and drug abuse and they have difficulty maintaining relationships.

It is difficult for an Australian observer to understand how change is possible in a society that shows so little appreciation of artistic freedom.

Over the course of this century, decision-making has been influenced strongly by a western perception that militant Islamic groups threaten our modern way of life. While China has been modernising economically, its attitude to basic human rights has not. It has moved towards capitalism but not democracy.

The Nobel Prize Committee has had the courage to stand up to China. Other international organisations and governments should also take stances based in principle rather than pragmatism.

The Australian Government for example, supplies raw materials to China, including gas from Queensland fields. In negotiating terms in this exchange, we should express strongly our disappointment at the treatment of Ai Weiwei. 


Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities including the University of Sydney. 

Topic tags: Tony Smith, Ai Weiwei, WikiLeaks, China, Beijing, Tienanmen Square



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Existing comments

It is tragic that governments fear intellectual freedom. Here, rightly or wrongly, Australia goes wild for Oprah. Could we possibly muster the energy to be wild about China's suppression of human rights?
Bronte Bushe' | 14 December 2010

Thanks Tony.
I cried reading about Frederick Ozanam's early death (at 40) to T.B. I picked up the now 50 yr old book recently at a Parish piety stall for free! - "Gentleman in a Top Hat'. He was a public pro-democracy, Catholic intellectual (Sorbonne Professor and also St. V, de Paul Society founder) in 19th C. France: misunderstood & derided by Catholic reactionaries and the rich establishment alike.

Ozanam's work was deliberately seeking an accomodation within democracy for a radical option for the poor. He saw that the Gospel way was of interior peace, whereas other ways led the poor to death by violence, debauchery and starvation and the rich to death by purposeless and the frustration of reason unliberated by faith.

As a mother at home I need to be highly imaginative in my faith in order to achieve the mastery of inclining my whole being for the good. My children need to see my enjoying them grow and demonstrate who they are in integral ways.

How can we engage with the right of the child to interior peace and social engagement? People accost us when we're out with their questions of the child.
Louise J. (nee O'Brien) Kellyville | 14 December 2010

It is very nice and easy to be critical about a foreign Government and its policies. I think before we go on a crusade with our self-righteousness, a closer look at our own backyard could be useful.

The reality is that true democracy in Australia is under real threat. It was less than a year ago when the Rann Government in South Australia wanted to introduce censorship during elections. Whilst we have beautiful motherhood policies of “freedom of information”, the reality is that most of Government business remains secretive and the public is unable to know what is happening with their taxes and charges. Widespread nepotism remains well entrenched in most Governments and massive waste of public funds remains secret.

The people of Australia paying very dearly for perks given to politicians, ex-politicians, senior public servants etc. Democracy in Australia has been reduced to a ballot every few years. Australia remains a long way from a true democratic and open system and before we are trying to change other countries, we may one day trying to introduce true democracy and openness our own country. This maybe too difficult and it may be far easier to judge others.

Beat Odermatt | 14 December 2010

The book I referred to is actually entitled 'Apostle in a Top Hat. The Inspiring Story of Frederick Ozanam, Founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society', by James Patrick Derum, Fidelity Publishing Co. St Clair, Michigan, USA 1960.
Louise J. (nee O'Brien) Kellyville | 14 December 2010

it's up to media attention, isn't it? I listen to radio for news now - it's cheap and informative. But I don't think the majority does. TV is more influential. Papers are conservative to compare with internet. People are on TV and internet and on Wikileaks. China is now economic monster - it's untouchable. It has now countries to side with it - it now can ask them to be silent one way or another. It has veto and nuclear. Money is everything in the world which has a lot of debts. Australian economy seems to depend on China soon - and now Australia can barely survive without China. Japan needs it. EU needs it. Africa needs/loves it. US is only asked to donate moneys - but is US now broke? Is there coincidence why some mot influential media loves to bash US and praise China? Aren't they doing that? Yes, we should give more attention on China's democratic struggle.
AZURE | 14 December 2010

Good to see you put the spotlight on China, Mr Smith. If I may, I would change the emphasis on the statement that you make in closing. You wrote, "Over the course of this century, decision-making has been influenced strongly by a western perception that militant Islamic groups threaten our modern way of life." I think that it is more correct to say that militant Islamic groups see our modern life as a threat to them. It is up to them to see that what might have worked in the 7th century deserts of Arabia is not going to work in the 21st century in the West.
Patrick James | 15 December 2010


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