Like all humans, yet far more obviously than most, Ai Wei Wei exists in some indefinable middle ground between being free and being under house arrest. That is true of his life in general, but especially as he waits out probation as depicted in Ai Wei Wei: the Fake Case.

In this documentary he appears wary and guarded when talking about restrictions on his ability to speak with foreigners about his own case, let alone about conditions in China. Ai Wei Wei does address both matters before the camera, and while his opinions are probably considered incendiary by some Chinese authorities (e.g. his belief that a revolution of some sort is inevitable and probably coming soon), he delivers these opinions not defiantly or energetically, but with an air of weary dispassion.

In the year 2000, in China on a Fulbright-Hays program aptly entitled (as this film might be) “Tradition and Transformation,” I came to understand that ordinary Chinese citizens were allowed to criticize the government in conversation, but that publishing criticism was forbidden.

That’s a big step up from the nightmare of the 1930s USSR, but far from conditions in the United States, where strident, hysterical, hyperbolic criticism of elected officials can get one lots of likes, a big media contract, and even election to high office.

Ai Wei Wei’s criticisms and predictions in this film are spoken softly in conversation, they are not delivered from a soap box. While willing to talk frankly before the camera, he shows reticence and suspicion when talking with one of the several opportunists (journalists and businessmen) we occasionally see trying to exploit him, precisely the sort of exploitation the government surely wants to forestall.

I wondered while watching this film just how much debate, uncertainty and anguish plagued the Chinese government as it tried to figure out what to do with and do about Ai Wei Wei. My guess is that not just the artist but his government was in a state of anxiety about what was gong too far.

For all of its power, the central government knows that its own existence is tenuous. Does trying to quiet Ai Wei Wei hasten or retard the movement for reform? The artist Ai Wei Wei has become the art, and it looks as if he rather enjoys that. His art, as shown in the film, is most directly about himself, not China writ large.

If I were the central government, I would strip him not of his freedom but of his outsider status, by bragging about his international stature as an example of China’s new eminence in world affairs. He could be co-opted without agreeing to be co-opted. As he says himself in the film, the world pays attention to him when he is in China (i.e. a political victim), not when he is abroad (i.e. just another artist doing his thing).

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