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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times