Working from HomeAi Weiwei takes a job in Berlin.
When Ai Weiwei walked out of a Beijing prison last month after 81 days of imprisonment, there was one question on everyone’s mind: had the most consistently vocal dissident in China finally been silenced? On the night of his release, the artist could only manage a terse response when reached on the phone: “I’m released, I’m home, I’m fine…. In legal terms, I’m—how do you say?—on bail. So I cannot give any interviews. But I’m fine.”
But two days ago, news outlets reported that Ai has accepted a guest professorship at the Berlin University of the Arts. Ai also broke media silence when he described some details of his semi-house arrest:
“My passport has been taken away,” he said. “I am not allowed to leave Beijing. I have to report to the police before I go shopping or to a restaurant or to meet friends. They usually allow me to go, but of course I am followed by plainclothes officers.”
In a more uplifting tone, he vowed that:
“My art will never change. It is deep in my bones. But [my incarceration] has made many things clearer. I have been working in the direction of freedom of expression. I think that is most important for my art.”
It’s great to hear that Ai is getting job offers overseas but part of the terms of his release stipulate that he is not allowed to leave the country without permission, which begs the question: will the Chinese government let him go? Can the Chinese government let him go?
It seems a long shot, especially when the court is pursuing the tax fraud charges against him. Authorities are demanding around $1.8 million from Ai, who, according to Xinhua, has “[confessed] his crimes” and has “repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded.” Would the Chinese government really let a prominent dissident who is also under investigation out of its jurisdiction? Perhaps Ai can argue that since he owes nearly $2 million, a comfy professorship might help with the bills.
Let’s crunch the numbers. According to a 2005 study by a lobby of German professors, the average annual salary of a top-level German professor with performance-related bonuses (because, really, who is going to rate Ai Weiwei poorly?) is €71,500, or a little over $100,000 a year. So if the Berlin University of the Arts were kind enough to comp Ai’s room and board, food and travel expenses, and give him a monthly stipend; and if Ai, for his part, diligently set his salary aside in a savings account, he should be able to pay the Chinese government back in under two decades, a decade and a half with some good investment advice.
In the end, I wish the best for Ai but I don’t think he’ll be able to set foot in Berlin unless he goes the way of dissident writer Liao Yiwu, who essentially smuggled himself into Germany by going through Vietnam and Poland. That said, I think it was brilliant for him to accept the professorship—it puts the ball in the government’s court, and the government isn’t a great ball-handler.
What captivates me about Ai is that he lives his life like a kind of performance art. His life is a demonstration of what happens when someone tries to push a little too hard against the Chinese government. He is never obscene or extremist—he merely tries to go a step beyond what is possible and by doing so shows us the invisible fence around Chinese society. All this makes for good art, but it’s not such a great career move.