- - Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Chinese artist and outspoken activist Ai Weiwei has had a complicated relationship with the communist regime in Beijing.

One of China’s most revered artists, he was chosen as chief designer of the so-called “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Olympics. In 2007, Mr. Ai distanced himself from his Olympic contribution, calling the stadium a “pretend smile” from the same regime that imprisoned his family during Mao’s brutal Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s. He also denounced Steven Spielberg for his involvement in the choreography of the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony, a project from which the legendary Hollywood director ultimately withdrew, after some vacillation.

Now that the Chinese government has arrested Mr. Ai for his more recent protests against the government — part of a broader crackdown on lawyers, artists and activists — will Mr. Spielberg and others in Hollywood speak out against the latest in a long history of crackdowns on Chinese dissidents?

Authorities detained Mr. Ai and his wife, Lu Qing, at a Beijing airport on Sunday, and Ms. Lu was later released. On Wednesday, China’s state-run Global Times newspaper declared that Mr. Ai “has been close to the red line of Chinese law,” warning: “As long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day.”

The editorial chillingly concluded: “Ai Weiwei will be judged by history, but he will pay a price for his special choice,” leaving many observers to worry that Mr. Ai has been imprisoned — and possibly even killed.

What makes Mr. Ai’s arrest particularly remarkable is his stature both within China and internationally. Mr. Ai not only comes with artist-activist pedigree — his father, poet Ai Qing, was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution — but his work is prominently featured in galleries and exhibits throughout the rest of the world.

China analyst Kelley Currie said she thought Mr. Ai’s online activism was what likely prompted his arrest. “He has become increasingly engaged in a very serious and substantive form of dissent, working with others on intensely political issues, including the collapse of schools in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 and the contaminated milk scandal that same year,” said Ms. Currie, a senior fellow at the Project 2049 Institute.

Some of those international museums that feature Mr. Ai’s artwork have expressed solidarity with the artist since his arrest, Ms. Currie says, but the relative silence of the arts community in America is disconcerting for those concerned with human rights in China and elsewhere. Reviews this week for China’s newly opened National Museum of Art on Tiananmen Square in the arts sections of papers such as the New York Times and the Boston Globe, for instance, barely mention, if at all, Mr. Ai’s imprisonment.

Such indifference toward the fate of Chinese dissidents is nothing new for the American cultural community, and nowhere has such passivity been more glaring than in Hollywood.

Mesmerized by the prospect of penetrating the largest movie market in the world, the American film industry often acts in strange, self-defeating ways designed to placate Beijing — which allows in only 20 non-Chinese movies a year.

That’s how rousing, red-meat fare like MGM’s “Red Dawn” remake, originally premised on a Chinese invasion of the American homeland (to collect on its debt), becomes a digitally watered-down farce. In the remake’s rewritten version, the invading Chinese soldiers are reportedly replaced by North Korean soldiers who form part of a nondescript, inoffensive pan-communist force.

Hollywood rarely greenlights films documenting the oppression and struggles of Chinese dissidents. Is it any surprise, then, that the most visible sector of the American arts community has stayed quiet while one of their own faces a high-profile persecution in China?

Doug Urbanski, a Hollywood producer and conservative radio talk show host, says a lot of his colleagues may be willfully ignorant about the situation.

“If the Hollywood idiots actually knew about China, I like to cling to the quaint notion that they would be very, very upset,” Mr. Urbanski says. “But they are romanced with this current idea of China’s peaceful order.”

It makes one all the more grateful for the rare filmmaker willing to risk rankling the communist regime. “Mao’s Last Dancer” (2009) is an Australian movie adapted from the autobiography of Li Cunxin, a peasant who escaped China for a better life in the United States, where she became a world-class ballet dancer. Exhibited in U.S. theaters last year, the film, directed by multiple Oscar nominee Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Tender Mercies,” “Breaker Morant”), is being released on DVD and Blu-ray on May 3.

The famously liberal-leaning American filmmaking community zealously guards its strict ideal of unlimited First Amendment rights — ask any pro-family activist. Hollywood could take a small step toward living up to its earnest free-speech rhetoric and living down its reputation as a politically selective champion of human rights internationally. How? By bringing some of the stories of Chinese dissidents — from the students of Tiananmen Square to Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo — to the silver screen.

Mr. Ai’s story itself might make a great Steven Spielberg film.

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