>> 05 October 2012
Ai Weiwei Must Be the Strongest Man in China
Why does an all-powerful state fear an artist's 140-character whispers?
By KAREEM AMER, MAIKEL NABIL, AHMAD BATEBI, HADEEL KOUKI A ND AHED AL HENDI
On Sunday, the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., will open the first major American exhibition of art by Ai Weiwei, one of China's most famous dissidents. Among its works: an approximately 3-by-6-foot magnetic-resonance image of his brain bleeding from a police beating in 2009. Washington diplomats, journalists and art lovers will attend the exhibit before it moves to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum in New York and other major galleries. Yet one figure won't be able to attend the show: Ai Weiwei.
The Chinese government has long denied Mr. Ai his human rights—imprisoning him, indicting him on trumped-up charges, and now confiscating his passport and denying his fundamental right to travel. In July, the Chaoyang District Court rejected Mr. Ai's final appeal even as they forbade him from attending his own hearing. As online activists from the Middle East who have similarly been imprisoned for our words, we understand his fate all too well.
Last year, Mr. Ai was detained for 81 days and forbidden to leave Beijing. The Chinese government's charges of tax fraud are intended to keep him intimidated. Today Mr. Ai seeks merely to travel, blog and speak freely.
Chinese authorities refuse to return his passport unless he pledges not to leave the country. What are they afraid of? Why would such an all-powerful state fear the tweets and blog posts of a single man?
Mr. Ai first rose to prominence through his art and architecture. Invited to blog by an Internet company in 2005, he initially hesitated. Once he started, however, his posts became increasingly bold. Authorities soon shut his blog down.
"I was very sad the moment they shut it off, because there was nothing we could do," Mr. Ai told Time magazine recently. "And then some guy said, 'I opened a miniblog for you.' It was just one sentence—140 characters. Twitter was like a poem. It was rich, real and spontaneous. It really fit my style."
Within a year and a half, Mr. Ai had sent out 60,000 tweets, spending a minimum of eight hours a day on the social-media site. His first blog post was one line: "To express yourself needs a reason, but expressing yourself is the reason."
China's repression of Mr. Ai confirms the insecurity that lies at the heart of the Communist regime—an insecurity based on the fear that criticism will unmask the regime's illegitimacy. This fear has plagued all too many governments elsewhere, including in the Middle East.
In dictatorial regimes, publicizing the plight of individuals whose rights are ignored takes on political and symbolic importance. As Mr. Ai put it, regarding poorly built school buildings toppled by a 2008 earthquake: "I always focus on individual cases. How many students died? What are their names? What are the basic facts? . . . Can a human being speak out with dignity?"
Mr. Ai is now famous, but countless Chinese who suffer daily aren't. Their stories are no less important, and it is people like Mr. Ai who give us a glimpse into their world.
How many Chinese citizens censor themselves even before the authorities can? As in the Middle East, many are afraid to voice their true opinions. They engage in "doublethink," outwardly expressing support for a regime while silently cursing it. As Mr. Ai correctly observed, "Words can be deleted, but the facts won't be deleted with them."
In 2009, Mr. Ai was nearly beaten to death while trying to show solidarity with another Chinese dissident, Tan Zuoren, by attending his trial. Now it is our turn to stand up for Mr. Ai.
Our jailers—in Egypt, Iran and Syria—believed they were stronger than us. We stand as a testament to the indomitable power of freedom to overcome tyranny. Dictatorships are inherently unstable. The world must know this.
Mr. Ai has said, "Once you've tasted freedom, it stays in your heart and no one can take it. Then, you can be more powerful than a whole country." We agree. All of us have tasted freedom—but have also spent a combined 15 years in prison for voicing dissent. Today, although he is denied his basic human rights, Mr. Ai is more powerful than ever.
It is the moral duty of all people to stand in solidarity with Ai Weiwei. His fate and China's future are one.
Messrs. Amer and Nabil are Egyptian. Mr. Batebi is Iranian. Ms. Kouki and Mr. Al Hendi are Syrian. All have been imprisoned in their home countries for political activism. They are board members of CyberDissidents.org, part of the New York-based organization Advancing Human Rights.
A version of this article appeared in October 5, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal.