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Vol. 27 Issue 2
LOOK UP, TECH GIANTS
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On a May day in 1967, a young Chinese boy, who would one day become one of the world’s most famous artists, climbed into the back of a government truck with his father and stepbrother.
Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution was in full swing, and the three of them were being sent to a remote labor camp in Xinjiang, far from the boy’s mother and younger brother in Beijing. His father, the poet Ai Qing, would be paraded in front of the camp’s other laborers as the ultimate social pariah, pulled onstage every night as an example of what not to become. To keep him from spreading his political ideas to others at the camp, Ai Qing would be assigned work trimming fruit trees far out in the desert.
For a time, the three would live in a rundown shack with no electricity or running water. Eventually, even that would prove too dignified. They would be forced to move into a rat- and flea-infested dirt dugout.
On the day that truck arrived, artist and now-Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei was not yet 10 years old.
What does that kind of experience do to a child?
“Although in most situations I found myself on the defensive,” he writes in his new memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, “over time my passive stance gradually evolved into one where I held the initiative. Father and I also gained a greater sense of security, finding comfort in exclusion from a community so complicit in our mistreatment.”
His time there taught him that he couldn’t rely on his fellow humans to protect him in the face of authoritarian injustice. He learned that his own instincts of right and wrong, good and evil, were more trustworthy than what society was reflecting back to him. And he learned to embrace his own autonomy.
Complicity in injustice is a tighter noose than injustice itself.
Truth, courage, and solidarity, he would learn, are the only ways to loosen it again.
After surviving imprisonment, surveillance, and beatings for his history of speaking out against authoritarian state policies and coverups, Ai Weiwei escaped. He now lives in Cambridge, England, with his partner and their son.
“For me, the worst thing would be to lose the capacity for free expression, for that would mean losing the motivation to recognize the value of life and make choices accordingly,” he writes of his decision to leave China. “For me, there is no other road I can take.”
What does any of this have to do with technology? Unfortunately, quite a lot.
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