Ai Weiwei on How Self-Censorship is Like Killing Chickens

Ai Weiwei. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery.
Ai Weiwei. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery.

In response to the removal this month of his name from an exhibition at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei rebounded by writing an essay titled “On Self-Censorship” for the Huffington Post, in which he unleashes his customary vitriol against censorship and its inherent evils. Ai’s name had been intentionally removed from press materials for the show—a tribute to the scholar and Ai’s friend and collaborator Hans Van Dijk, with whom Ai co-founded the China Art Archives & Warehouse (CAAW)—by the Center’s chief Xiu Mei bowing to pressure from Chinese authorities. It was the second time this year that his name had been removed from a show, the first being a retrospective in the spring in Shanghai.

So how is self-censorship like killing chickens? Here’s a brief excerpt:

Intimidation is the most efficient tool for those in power to scare away people’s sense of independence. Not only can they successfully expunge ideas from the public sphere and purge those who dare to express these ideas and attitudes, they can also brainwash anyone who simply wants to function as a part of society. In order to gain financial and personal security, people need to conform to behavioral standards without asking any questions or attempting to tell right from wrong. Censorship is a system that creates absolute power and paralyses society, removing the people’s courage to make judgments or bear social responsibility.

Censorship and self-censorship act together in this society to ensure that independent thinking and creativity cannot exist without bowing to authority. More often than not, self-censoring and the so-called threats related to it, are based on a memory or a vague sense of danger, and not necessarily a direct instruction from high officials. The Chinese saying sha ji jing hou puts it succinctly: killing the chicken to scare the monkey. Punishing an individual as an example to others again incites this policy of intimidation that can resound for lifetimes and even generations.

Waging his perennial protest against censorship in a more jovial way, by regularly creating something catchy on the Internet that more often than not goes viral, Ai recently launched the fun fake “leg-gun” meme.


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