Art critic and painter Chen Danqing gave a speech in March excoriating the Culture Ministry for meddling in his affairs. "Don't you think this kind of pathetic, cowardly behavior is just like molesting yourselves?" he asked. A little later, the Communist Party arrested Ai Weiwei, artist, blogger, architect and big-hearted provocateur, the biggest catch in a crackdown that has snared dozens of activists. Now, Chen and others like him are left to reflect on what Ai's removal means for China and for them.
Chen is 58, with a shaved head, long fingernails on his pinkies and careful hands. One of China's most famous public intellectuals, Chen is not so much an activist as an eloquent and ambivalent dissenter. He criticizes the party's grasp on history and expression and belittles China's other artists for refusing to speak out. He thinks modern Chinese literature is "shameful" but admires blogger and race-car driver Han Han, whom he calls "the best example of post post-totalitarian writing, but he doesn't know that." He also admires Ai and mourns his detention but thinks he went too far. "I don't like provocation. Ai Weiwei thinks this is New York in the 1970s, where you can do anything without fear, the more extreme the better."
Chen's first success came from painting realistic portraits of Tibetans in the early days of China's opening; almost overnight he became one of the country's most famous artists. "Imagine suddenly there's a painting that's not overly political, social realism," said Philip Tinari, a Beijing-based art critic. "That was Chen's contribution." Chen moved to New York in 1982 and lived there for 18 years, writing and painting; he received American citizenship in 1994. Ai moved to New York in 1981 and lived there for 12 years; during this time Chen and Ai became friendly, eventually publishing a book together, "Interviews Not About Art," in 2007.
After returning to China, Chen focused on the domestic, teaching at Tsinghua, one of China's most prestigious universities, before quitting over government interference. Ai grew into an international art superstar and a strident critic of the Communist Party. One acquaintance of Ai described him as a martial arts warrior so lonely in his awesomeness that he had to search for something big enough to defeat him.
China's Art Value Magazine held an online poll in February for China's 2010 "Artist of the Year" and Ai immediately found himself in a commanding lead. At this point Ai was already too controversial, so the magazine awarded the prize to someone else. Ai showed up anyway and stood outside the event, smiling beatifically. Despite his princeling pedigree (Ai's father is one of China's most revered modern poets), many in the art and media world sensed that someone as uniquely outspoken as Ai would get his comeuppance sooner or later.
Ai's detention has shaken the edgier corners of Beijing's art scene. "We knew [Ai's detention] would happen sooner or later, but it was still surprising," said Gao Qiang, the younger of the two Gao brothers, contemporary artists with a studio in 798, a former factory complex that's now Beijing's best known art district. "We're all scared. Ai Weiwei was scared. The party is so marvelous, how can we not be scared?" added his brother Gao Zhen with a sort of earnest sarcasm.
"The thing that makes me sad is Beijing becomes interesting because of people like Ai, and now he's disappeared," said Chen, speaking in a friend's spacious loft studio.
Chen is probably better known in China than Ai, though he doesn't have a Twitter or a Twitter-like Sina weibo account and claims not to read the newspaper. Chen now paints on the subject of "how two cultures can't communicate with each other." Ever the pessimist, Chen sees the party's rooting itself deeper and deeper into contemporary society. "I've become more quiet. I accept the reality: Protect yourself, and that's it."
Chen is not the most outspoken artist flourishing in China — better contenders for that title are the Gao brothers, known in the West for works such as a series of statues featuring a Mao-like creature with breasts. They compare this current crackdown with Nazi Germany's roundup of Jews. Chen, unlike the Gaos, is still part of the system. He gives official speeches and was a consultant to film director Zhang Yimou during the Olympics; this and his decades of accumulated respect in society allow him to criticize with near impunity.
Chen returned to China right before it joined the World Trade Organization, in what he expected would be the eve of a great liberalization. "By 2006 and 2007 everyone was clear that everything was worse than before." Still, he wants to stay in China. "It's too certain the way society will go in New York. You pay taxes, and then you go the funeral home. I grew up in a chaotic time. I'm attracted to a changing society, and I want to see where that change is going.
"Being back in Beijing I forget what it's like to speak openly about all of these things. It feels good, but yes, I am a little afraid," Chen said. Sometimes the red line can be hazy, and dangerously enthralling. "Whenever I speak to students, and there are thousands in the auditorium, someone will raise their head and say, 'Teacher Chen, what really happened 20 years ago at Tiananmen?' And I can't say anything in those moments. One time there was this really cute boy who got really angry. He said, 'I know what happened 20 years ago, but I want to hear it from you.' And I could only say, 'Thank you.'"