Ai Weiwei, who, along with some associates, is still being held incommunicado by the Chinese authorities, was set to appear at the TED conference last month, but his scheduled appearance, on the second day, came and went without a word from the organizers. On the fourth day he appeared in the form of a short video, in which he described his work and his mission: “Use the internet, use the new technologies to communicate with young people and have much broader discussions.”
It’s a great, reserved presentation. At the end, he appeared on a web cam from his studio in Beijing, and smiled and waved at the audience as they gave him a standing ovation.
Chris Anderson explained that Ai’s current “circumstances” meant that he “couldn’t come.” Though it wasn’t clear that he was prevented from coming by Chinese authorities, as some Tweeted, his perilous position in China – not to mention his crazy schedule – likely made the trip to Long Beach, California too complicated for Ai.
But at TED Active, the simultaneous event in Palm Springs that I attended, there was some speculation that his appearance may have been a source of anxiety for TED as well. As Anderson reminded the audience at the beginning, TED takes no sides, and has much respect for the Chinese government’s economic achievements. Like many companies eager to do business with and make an impact in China (hello Facebook, and hello Google), TED does not want to see its growing online and physical presence there curtailed.
Ai addressed this very dilemma at the end of his talk. “In the past 30 years, China made a great difference economically, became much more connected and recognized by the international community,” he said. “But we are still a Communist society. Some basic values such as freedom of speech and human rights are still in a poor condition. Many people, only because they speak out their mind, can be put in jail or put in a very difficult situation.”
“All the Western nations are trying to kind of tolerate what happens in China today,” he said. “I think this is very short sighted and will not help China become a modern society.”
At that moment, I couldn’t help but think of the U.S.‘s mixed signals when it comes to dealing with the Chinese government on issues ranging from human rights to currency reform to protectionism, and of the kowtowing that has become a staple of corporate involvement in China. Anderson’s even-keeled preface hinted at the same kind of ambivalence; from today’s vantage point, it can’t help but seem just a little too temperate.
Support for Ai Weiwei and calls for his release are at a fever pitch now, on Twitter, and in petitions across the Internet. But here’s the persistent conundrum, one that haunts governments but also Internet enthusiasts, from Facebook activists to TED to Ai himself: how to translate virtual protest, through language, art and the web, into the kind of action that can influence a really hard situation? The sort of situation, for instance, when an entire country is living under a kind of detention?
That’s a problem larger than any one of us can handle. But perhaps the Chinese government itself will feel the need for change. As physically intimidating as the Communist Party looks, its greatest weapon isn’t its tanks or soldiers or barricades, but rather something as virtual as Ai’s: its grasp over information. Internet censorship isn’t just one of the most obvious signals of insecurity and fear; it’s also perhaps one of the easiest to subvert, through the global guerrilla tactics of crusaders like Ai. The use of social media by activists like him has its own drawbacks too: as the Middle East keeps reminding us, Tweeting and Facebooking make it easy to organize activists, but also easier for officials to track down activists and secret them away.
The irony of course is that Weiwei will come out of this more powerful than ever, more capable of waging a fight against the dictates of an authoritarian regime. What about the rest of us?