I forget which Third Reich downfall book it’s in, but I once read an anecdote about some Red Army soldiers capturing one of those cultured SS types and making him play the piano for them at gunpoint. Off he goes; waltz tunes, tinkly bits, sentimental favourites, everything he can think of, then more of the same. 17 hours later he collapses from exhaustion. His captors give him a pat on the back, a slug of vodka and a bullet in the head.
I thought of this last week in the resounding silence occasioned by Ai Weiwei’s guest editorship of the New Statesman, followed rapidly by his flap at the Gangnam style meme, though that did get a bit of comment, by no means all of it favourable. Ai couldn’t be expected to know that the New Statesman is where politics goes to die. Perhaps the realisation that he wasn’t kicking up much dust in the Staggers led to his brief outburst of jazz hands later that week.
It goes without saying that Ai’s relationship with the Chinese state is antagonistic. It also contains a number of paradoxical elements. The lonely dissident who can attract publicity for everything he does. The man under detention who somehow manages to be present when the US ambassador is confronted by a bunch of nationalist demonstrators and when anti and pro government bloggers are having a ruck in Chaoyang Park. The man's entire career is based around serial attempts to incite subversion of state power, the ‘crime’ that got Liu Xiaobo a decade in prison, but the authorities dick around with tax charges: it’s not as if they have to prove anything at a proper trial.
Obviously, Ai’s celebrity is keeping him out of prison. It’s slightly puzzling that the authorities let him get away with it. The only reason I can think of is that he was already too well known to disappear when he emerged as an overt dissident back in 2008. What’s left is the fallback position of constant harrassment at too low a level to prevent him from operating but at a high enough level for his fame to be backstopped by his status as a dissident.
There are some benefits for Beijing in this, since the image of China as a totalitarian state tends to be undermined by its most famous dissident doing a great deal of whatever the hell he pleases, including overt mocking of the regime. But I don’t think one hand’s washing the other here. From Ai’s point of view, he has to keep the music going: parody videos, sub-Damien Hirst conceptual art games, guest editorships at somnolent political journals: they all help to keep him out of serious jail time.
It all gives you a queasy feeling that you’re watching a regular performance of Chinese Dissidents Got Talent. Ai’s always coming along with something to entertain us and what freedom he has depends on his continued ability to do so, but you get the horrible feeling that art fashions will change, the projects will get a bit more threadbare, new and more exciting dissidents adopting the same strategy will come along and the sheer burden of constant, media friendly reinvention will eventually exhaust him. And it involves the rest of the world directly in Ai’s eventual fate. Can we be bothered to watch for longer than Beijing is prepared to wait?