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China’s Cultural Icons Turn Political

by Elizabeth C. Economy
May 25, 2010

Chinese artist Ai WeiWei (C) walks past police as he arrives to give support to Liu Xiaobo, one of China's most prominent dissidents, outside the courthouse where Liu is on trial in Beijing December 23, 2009. Liu went on trial on subversion charges on Wednesday, drawing an outcry at home and abroad over the country's sweeping laws against political opponents. Chinese prosecutors accuse Liu of "inciting subversion of state power" by publishing essays on the Internet critical of the ruling Communist Party and helping to organise the "Charter 08" petition, demanding a democratic remake of the one-party state. REUTERS/David Gray

David Gray/Courtesy Reuters

There are new voices on China’s political scene. While political activists such as Hu Jia and Charter 08 leader Liu Xiaobo languish in jail and AIDS activist Wan Yanhai flees to safety in the United States, a few of China’s iconic cultural figures are picking up the cause of greater political freedom. Using the Internet–blogs, Twitter, and YouTube– China’s cultural and religious figures are paving the way for a new form of political activism.

Chief among them is Han Han, the 27-year-old author, race-car driver, and blogger. Han Han, who ranked second on Time Magazine’s top 100 most influential people in 2010 (despite a vigorous Chinese government campaign against him), has a must-read blog that attracts some 750,000 readers annually. Han Han writes often about the need for an open media, free speech, and genuine elections. He pokes fun at corrupt officials, taking an online vote about whether one such official should remain in power because, in fact, the level of this official’s corruption wasn’t as bad as that of many others. His musings are subtle, irreverent, and often hilarious. Ai Weiwei, the much heralded Beijing-based artist, similarly has struck a chord among the Chinese people with his relentless pursuit of openness and justice for the children who died in the Sichuan earthquake and their devastated families. You can read Ai’s tweets on political issues such as protesting government moves to restrict internet freedoms, but even more compelling are the videos he has posted on YouTube of his dealings with corrupt and stonewalling officials as he tries to gain the release of one of his colleagues investigating the situation in Sichuan. Even the Dalai Lama has joined Twitter, talking about the need for greater protection of Tibet’s culture, religion, and environment.

It is too early to say where this will all lead. But amidst all the renewed efforts by Beijing to clamp down on political dissidents and NGO activists, these iconic cultural figures may well be China’s best hope for keeping a spirit of political change alive.

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