Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei

Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei

by Barnaby Martin

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The gripping story of post-Mao China and the harrowing fate of the artist and activist Ai Weiwei

In October 2010, Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds appeared in the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern. In April 2011, he was arrested and held for more than two months in terrible conditions. The most famous living Chinese artist and activist, Weiwei is a figure of extraordinary talent, courage, and integrity. From the beginning of his career, he has spoken out against the world's most powerful totalitarian regime, in part by creating some of the most beautiful and mysterious artworks of our age, works which have touched millions around the world.

Just after Ai Weiwei's release from illegal detention, Barnaby Martin flew to Beijing to interview him about his imprisonment and to learn more about what is really going on behind the scenes in the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party. Based on these interviews and Martin's own intimate connections with China, Hanging Man is an exploration of Weiwei's life, art, and activism and also a meditation on the creative process, and on the history of art in modern China. It is a rich picture of the man and his milieu, of what he is trying to communicate with his art, and of the growing campaign for democracy and accountability in China. It is a book about courage and hope found in the absence of freedom and justice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374708436
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/17/2013
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Barnaby Martin is a journalist who has written for The Daily Telegraph and has spent many years living in China. He has written novels, some of which were bestsellers, under a pen name.
Barnaby Martin, author of Hanging Man, is a journalist who has written for The Daily Telegraph and has spent many years living in China. He has written novels, some of which were bestsellers, under a pen name.

Read an Excerpt

Hanging Man

The Arrest of Ai Weiwei

By Barnaby Martin

Faber and Faber, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Barnaby Martin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70843-6


It was July 2011 and Ai Weiwei was under house arrest in Beijing. He had just been released from detention and he was forbidden from talking to journalists or fellow dissidents, he was obliged to report all his proposed movements to his minders and when he did leave his house he was tailed and shadowed by undercover police. It wasn't exactly the 'freedom' he'd been hoping for but as I was about to find out, it was immeasurably better than his experience inside.

Like thousands of other people round the world I had watched the footage of China's most famous artist being unceremoniously dumped back on his doorstep by the police, clutching the top of his beltless trousers. He had looked cowed and he appeared to be in shock, and as he'd shuffled through the steel door into the courtyard of his home all he'd managed to mutter to the cameras was that he was not allowed to talk to the press and that he hoped people would understand. For all the Chinese Communist Party's efforts to portray the country as a modern, upstanding member of the international community it was still unable to tolerate dissent and its attempts to improve its image abroad were, as Weiwei had said of the Beijing Olympics, nothing more than 'a fake smile'. If you crossed the invisible line that demarcated what could and could not be said you would still get arrested, no matter how famous or important you were. For many people in China and abroad who looked up to Ai Weiwei as one of the few people who dared to publicly criticise the Chinese government, it was an exceptionally demoralising and frightening moment.

A few years ago, the general public in the west knew next to nothing about this strange, bearlike man who sported a sage's beard and chuckled frequently and made inexplicable pieces of art. As a package he was almost sui generis. Even to people within the art world he was a strange commodity. At first glance he could easily be mistaken for a latter-day Chinese Dadaist but if he was a Dadaist, he was a Dadaist who was operating in a country that appeared to be some sort of cross between Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. He also appeared to be a political activist and blogger, but in a society where political activism and blogging is more often than not a fatal career move.

His Sunflower Seeds show in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in London in 2010 propelled him to global fame and prompted more people to take a closer look at his work. Those who did found a succession of strange objects and bizarre installations. He appeared to specialise in altering and tinkering with the banal, background furniture of life: chairs and stools colliding with each other (Grapes); chairs made of marble; marble doors; a one-man shoe; a marble CCTV camera; hundreds of coal hives lined up on the floor; bicycles stacked upon bicycles, arranged in a circle; hundreds of Neolithic pots, immersed in industrial paint. Then there were the larger-scale pieces: Fairytale, for example – the work he created for Documenta 12 in 2007, in which 1001 Chinese people wandered the streets of Kassel in Germany for a week. Or Remembering, the haunting fresco he created for the facade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich as part of his So Sorry retrospective in 2009. It was made from nine thousand children's backpacks and it spelt out the tragic words 'She lived happily on this earth for seven years'. This was a quote from one of the mothers who had lost a child during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Thousands of children had perished in the disaster when their shoddily built school buildings had collapsed on their heads.

His art was serious and yet at other times it was irreverent; it was inventive and yet ordinary. Normal things were transformed by his touch so that they appeared in a new and uncanny light. It seemed that over the course of three decades he had succeeded in erecting a half-recognisable netherworld that had the effect of forcing people to look again at reality and see it through fresh eyes.

But it wasn't Ai Weiwei's tinkering with the realia of existence that first got him into trouble with the Chinese government. His problems really began when his art merged with his vociferous campaigning for transparency and accountability in government and for freedom of expression. It is hard to overemphasise just how extensive Ai Weiwei's non-art activities were before his arrest. At times he had more than fifteen hundred people on his payroll; his art was just one of the many manifestations of his energy and personality. Art, architecture, blogging, book writing, campaigning were all natural by-products. First and foremost he was an irrepressible demiurge with a deeply radical agenda. Until his arrest, Weiwei's real drive and power often went unrecognised, perhaps due to the fact that because of his wit and intelligence he has been regarded in the past as something of a puckish character, a sort of Duchampian clown. But there was something far darker lurking beneath the surface. Weiwei was on a self-imposed mission: his stated ambition is to change China and, like one of the Furies of Greek myth, he is both the child and the nemesis of the current order.

* * *

A few days after his release I phoned various contacts in Beijing. No one I knew had yet spoken to him. He was refusing all interviews because he was worried that if he did speak to anyone he would be rearrested for breaching the terms of his bail and above all else he didn't want to be detained again. There was only one thing left to do: I picked up the phone and rang his old mobile number. I assumed that the police would have confiscated it or turned it off, but to my surprise Weiwei answered. My first thought was that he sounded much older than when we had last spoken, a month or so before his arrest – much older and much slower. And my second thought was: 'They've broken him.' But when I asked him what it had been like inside, his characteristic openness and alacrity suddenly returned: 'Come and visit and we can talk about everything.' I agreed, but because his phone and email were tapped I refrained from telling him precisely when I would come.

During the first six months of 2011 the atmosphere among the dissident community in Beijing, and among the broader community of people who dared to criticise the Chinese government, went from excitement to stifling fear and paranoia. The Arab Spring was in full swing and all across the Middle East authoritarian regimes were fighting desperate rearguard actions. With the overthrow of the Egyptian and Yemeni governments in February 2011, the revolutionaries appeared to have the wind in their sails and to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party these events must have been worryingly reminiscent of the atmosphere in April 1989, when events in Poland brought Lech Wal[??]sa's Solidarity Party a step closer to power and precipitated the domino-like collapse of the Eastern Bloc. In 1989 the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square had held up banners expressing their solidarity with their brothers and sisters abroad in the Soviet Union; Wu'er Kaixi, perhaps the most charismatic of the student leaders in 1989, even went so far as to boast that he was 'better than Lech Wal[??]sa'.

In February 2011 the Chinese government decided to act: scores of human rights activists and dissidents were detained by the police. They suffered beatings, torture and repeated interrogation and they were forced to make videotaped confessions. Some of these people were held for a few days, others were sent to re-education camps and still others simply vanished. At the time of writing their relatives still do not know where they are. They were often hooded when they were arrested; they were often watched round the clock. Relatives of those arrested who have dared to talk to the Guardian newspaper said that when the detainees returned home, they suffered disturbed sleep, memory loss and trauma.

For the Chinese government, the round-up was a preemptive strike. The Tiananmen Square showdown and the eventual massacre on 4 June 1989 have coloured the thoughts and actions of the leadership ever since. The 1989 demonstrations began peacefully enough as a spontaneous mourning vigil for the well-loved aspirant reformer Hu Yaobang, who had died on 11 April that year. But very quickly things had escalated. First the students called for a continuation of reform and then, emboldened by the inaction of the leadership and the support of the people and workers of Beijing, they began to denounce the Politburo members by name. Student leaders like Wu'er Kaixi, Wang Dan and Chai Lin were allowed to use Tiananmen Square as a platform from which they addressed China and the world. Zhao Ziyang, the General Secretary of the Party, had urged restraint, counselling that the students were only expressing their patriotism; Li Peng, the leader of the conservative faction, had advised force. The ultimate decision lay with the paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, a man who had been an active participant in almost all the great events of China's tumultuous post-imperial history.

Deng was born in 1904. He had seen countless friends and colleagues die horribly in the conflicts with the Nationalists and the Japanese. He had been on the Long March with Mao Zedong in 1934–5, the seminal event in the story of the Chinese Communist Party, a year-long military retreat in which only some eight thousand survived of the eighty thousand who had set out. He had seen military service at first hand and at a high level; he was political secretary for the Second Field Army during one of the biggest conventional military battles in human history, the Huaihai campaign in 1948–9, the Chinese Stalingrad: a battle of such gigantic proportions that it is alleged to have left more than five hundred thousand Nationalist soldiers dead. He had witnessed the disaster of the Great Leap Forward and the ensuing catastrophic famine that killed at least thirty million people and possibly as many as forty-five million. He had been purged from the leadership three times by Mao but he was always recalled to the top table of Chinese politics. His whole life had been lived against a backdrop of violence and war that had culminated in the cannibalistic frenzy of the Cultural Revolution, during which his own son was thrown out of the window of his student dormitory, leaving him confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The complete anarchy of the first years of the Cultural Revolution had only been brought to a close by the sending in of the People's Liberation Army, but it smouldered on pretty much until the death of Mao and Zhou Enlai, the arrest and trial of the Gang of Four by Hua Guofeng, Mao's chosen successor, and the ascension of Deng himself to the position of paramount leader. In short, Deng had seen everything: the horrors, the pain and the hard-won success. On 4 June 1989, he wasn't going to allow a bunch of students to push the country back into the chaos of the past. Today, Deng's decision to send in the army and his justification for that decision still provide the rationale behind the terms of the contract between the Party and the people. As Deng said at the time:

Of course we want to build socialist democracy, but we can't possibly do it in a hurry and still less do we want that western-style stuff. If our one billion people jumped into multi-party elections we'd get chaos like the all-out civil war we saw during the Cultural Revolution. Democracy is our goal but you'll never get there without national stability.

* * *

But why had Ai Weiwei been arrested? To the outside observer, particularly someone who lives in the west and only knows him as a conceptual artist, his detention was shocking, verging on the bizarre. The sudden wave of arrests of human rights activists and lawyers was depressing but predictable. Such people are always the targets of repressive regimes. But a conceptual artist who had just deposited one hundred million hand-painted sunflower seeds on the floor of Tate Modern, why was he feeling the heat? Could it be that the Chinese Communist Party had an extremely sophisticated view of the origins of dissent? Did they understand the deeply subversive nature of his Dada-style art and recognise that throughout history, aesthetic revolution has always been a harbinger of social revolution; that changes in the way artists portray reality lead inevitably to the changes in the way the common people think and behave? Or maybe it was more straightforward than that. Ai Weiwei was a tireless critic of the government, and he had a vast following on Twitter and Chinese social media platforms. It was not a combination that the Chinese government approved of. But whatever the ultimate reasons for his arrest I felt that Ai Weiwei's experience at the hands of the Chinese secret police could throw a unique light on the psychological state of the Chinese Communist Party itself.

But just after his release Ai Weiwei was isolated. In addition to his initial, self-imposed purdah, some foreign journalists in Beijing were not seeking him out for the simple reason that if they did so they risked having their press visas revoked or not renewed at the end of the year. Others did approach him but initially at least he declined to do interviews, afraid that he might be rearrested for breaching the terms of his bail. The first detailed accounts of his experience only began to appear in the foreign press in September. As for local journalists, they certainly weren't going to get involved. Foreign art dealers, similarly, were nervous about associating with a man who was still very much a pariah. If you are a professional and you've ploughed much of your life into becoming an expert on some aspect of China or Chinese culture, it certainly wasn't worth jeopardising what you had built up. This is not to say that many people in the art community were not working to support Ai Weiwei and to further the cause of artistic freedom – the very opposite was the case – but they had to be very careful, and to make their contributions in more subtle ways. If you live in China, outright and vocal support of a jailed dissident can be dangerous. It is all too easy to get detained.

So why did I decide to visit him? Firstly, my career as a writer is not dependent on me being able to visit China, so I am less afraid of penalties from the Chinese state. Secondly, because I knew that other people were obliged to give Weiwei a wide berth, I thought I should check to see if he was all right. I could interview him and if necessary advertise his plight by writing an article for a newspaper, while other people couldn't afford to do this. Thirdly, I was interested to hear his story because for some time I had been toying with the idea of writing a book about modern China that would use an account of Ai Weiwei's life as its backbone. His life and that of his father, Ai Qing, one of China's most famous twentieth-century poets, are so intertwined with the great people and events of modern Chinese history that any biographical account would necessarily touch on the main historical events of the post-imperial epoch. Furthermore, Ai Weiwei is that rare bird, a Chinese person that many people elsewhere in the world have heard of and for the most part are interested in and even sympathetic towards. Ask someone to name three living Chinese people and Ai Weiwei will most likely appear on their list. When writing about China there are few living Chinese citizens who command anything like this kind of name recognition. For most non-Chinese people, unless they have been fortunate enough to study Chinese at university or to have lived in the country or one of its satellites, knowledge of China is very limited indeed. So my original thought had been that by stepping through the door into Ai Weiwei's compound I would learn a great deal more about China itself.


Excerpted from Hanging Man by Barnaby Martin. Copyright © 2013 Barnaby Martin. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
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