Ai Weiwei supporters defy Chinese house arrest

A party at the dissident artist's studio in Shanghai goes ahead without its host.

Despite his being under house arrest in Beijing, around 500 supporters of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei gathered at his soon-to-be-demolished Shanghai studio on Sunday. Partygoers were served river crab and steamed buns, and held up posters of Ai that displayed the gash on his forehead which he received when he was beaten by police in 2008.

Ai told the New Statesman:

It was fantastic to see pictures from the event as it was happening. Many people that went had been warned by police not to go. So I'm touched that so many people went and had a great time.

Ai added that he was surprised the police let the event go ahead:

Maybe they were aware of all of the bad press they have had. But it might be because Shanghai cares more about its image than Beijing does. The event would have got even more attention if they had shut it down. And David Cameron is coming next week -- which is something the BBC has been writing about -- so they were clever to try and keep it quiet.

Partygoers who had travelled from outside of Shanghai were invited to stay overnight at the studio. Zhang Haibo, a 24-year-old restaurant worker living in Beijing, made the 1,000km trip to Shanghai with a small group of friends. Although Zhang was warned against attending by the Chinese government, he slept at the studio overnight on one of hundreds of beds that were dotted around the space. He told the New Statesman:

Two days ago I was invited to "drink tea" with the authorities. They said to stop supporting Ai and to stop following him on Twitter. And yesterday [6 November] they called me and said not to go to Shanghai for the banquet ... I am not an artist. And I don't care too much about Mr Ai Weiwei's work. But me and my friends are here to support him -- we also want democracy and liberty.

Another supporter, Li Dezhi, was awarded a handful of Ai's sunflower seeds, like those currently on display at Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, for completing more press-ups (89) than any of the other 20 competitors.

"Today was about having fun and to demonstrate that we support Ai Weiwei and what he stands for," said the 23-year-old from Shanghai. "I guess this event was also a piece of performance art. I knew everyone coming wouldn't stop it from being knocked-down. It was just important to be here."

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“The Hole-Up”: a poem by Matthew Sweeney

“You could taste the raw / seagull you’d killed and plucked, / the mussels you’d dug from sand, / the jellyfish that wobbled in your / hands as you slobbered it.”

Lying on your mouth and nose
on the hot sand, you recall
a trip in a boat to the island –
the fat rats that skittered about
after god-knows-what dinner,
the chubby seals staring up,
the sudden realisation that a man
on the run had wintered there
while the soldiers scoured
the entire shoreline to no avail –
you knew now you had been him
out there. You could taste the raw
seagull you’d killed and plucked,
the mussels you’d dug from sand,
the jellyfish that wobbled in your
hands as you slobbered it.
You saw again that first flame
those rubbed stones woke in
the driftwood pile, and that rat
you grilled on a spar and found
delicious. Yes, you’d been that man,
and you had to admit now you
missed that time, that life,
though you were very glad you
had no memory of how it ended.


Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon was shortlisted for the 2007 T S Eliot Prize. His latest collection is Inquisition Lane (Bloodaxe).

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt