In the vast exhibition hall of London’s Tate Modern, the installation looks from a distance like a huge patch of gravel. Perhaps it is the first stage of a construction site or the last stage of a demolition. Only when you come closer and crouch down can you identify the little objects. A discerning eye might determine that they are reproductions. The rest of us rely on an accompanying video about Ai Weiwei’s project, which explains that the Chinese artist had commissioned a village of artists to produce the porcelain objects and paint them to resemble the real thing. What from far away looks like a gravel parking lot is actually one hundred million artfully produced sunflower seeds.

This collection of black-and-white seeds possesses a certain beauty. Its vastness suggests the vastness of China itself. And though China might look like one thing from a distance, if you move closer and closer to the country, it becomes something else altogether. Even when you’re pressed up against it, you still might mistake the simulacrum for the real.

To understand Ai’s Sunflower Seeds, you have to dig a little bit deeper. It helps to know that Chinese leader Mao Zedong and his Communist Party were often represented as the sun, as in the popular song, “The east is red, the sun is rising/China has brought forth a Mao Zedong.” Sunflowers, then, are the people of China, who bend toward the beneficent light of the leader. And sunflower seeds are the product of the Chinese people.

In the Tate Modern, though, all you see are the seeds. There is no sun. There are no sunflowers. There is only the fruit of a thousand flowers blooming.

But it is Ai Weiwei, not the Chinese leadership, who has generated these seeds. To create the work, Ai commissioned the artisans of Jingdezhen, a town famous in China for producing porcelain for the emperor and for export. During the Maoist era, the artisans also produced badges and statues of the Chinese leader. But now it is an artist with connections to the West who brings employment to the artisans. Ai cheerfully admits that the artists are not quite sure why they’re doing what they’re doing. But they are happy for the work and grateful to the artist. These echoes of sentiments from earlier eras are surely also part of the overall artwork.

Ai Weiwei has acquired a reputation for irony, whimsy, and pointed satire. He has photographed himself flipping the bird at the White House and in Tiananmen Square. He has made sculptures out of materials scavenged from ancient houses destroyed during China’s relentless construction boom. He has dropped ancient vases to simulate the destruction of the Cultural Revolution. He has taken a nearly naked picture of himself jumping in the air with a stuffed animal concealing his groin. The caption, which reads “grass mud horse covering the middle,” becomes overtly critical when you pronounce the characters with different tones to produce “fuck your mother, the Communist Party central committee.”

But Ai was not content with making sly criticisms of the Chinese government. He openly denounced the authorities as “totalitarian” when he refused to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. He blogged and tweeted about any number of sensitive subjects, from the June 4, 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square to the shoddy construction that left so many dead after the Wenchuan earthquake. The Chinese government tolerated Ai Weiwei’s art in part because of his international reputation and perhaps because huge sculptures of conjoined bicycles were not exactly provoking the masses to revolt. The tweets and the blog entries, on the other hand, had the scent of jasmine to them. With the June 4 anniversary approaching and crowds deposing leaders in the Middle East, the Chinese authorities detained Ai on April 4 and kept him in prison for nearly three months.

Ai is now out, along with AIDS activist Hu Jia, who served more than three years on charges of sedition. As part of the terms of his recent release, Ai reportedly can’t give interviews or use his Twitter account for a year. Also during that period, he can’t leave Beijing without permission.

In democracies, artists can say what they like, more or less, but the price they pay is attenuated political impact; gone are the days when Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle transformed social attitudes and created different political facts on the ground. In non-democracies, meanwhile, artists can have tremendous political impact, but often it’s less for what they say than for what they’re prevented from saying. With his art, Ai Weiwei has carefully navigated this borderline between the land of the Marginal and the land of the Forbidden in an attempt to be both relevant and provocative. Stripped of his Twitter megaphone, he might have to go back to letting his art speak for itself.

But it’s hard to imagine Ai Weiwei falling silent. In her poem to the artist, The Last Son of China, Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor J.P. puts words in the artist’s mouth:

I have to speak as long as I have breath…no matter how thin…even if you tear out my tongue…I’ll still have my teeth…even if you pull out my teeth…I’ll still have my eyes… even if you gouge out my eyes…I’ll still have my ears…even if you pierce my eardrums…I’ll still have my hands… even if you chop off my hands…I’ll still have my guts …even if you grind up my guts… I’ll still have my heart that won’t stop beating… even if you smash my heart into a million pieces… they will turn into a billion sunflower seeds…

Perhaps Ai just has to wait it out. State repression in China comes in cycles, with thaws and freezes succeeding one another according to the rise and fall of political factions in the leadership and the waxing and waning of civic courage. This latest crackdown has tempered the optimism of those who believe that economic liberalization easily translates into political liberalization. But a more careful reading suggests a different interpretation.

“The crackdown reveals just how far Chinese legal reform and civil society have progressed,” writes FPIF contributor Vivian Yang in The Silver Lining in China’s Crackdown. “Among those jailed or suffering from ‘enforced disappearances,’ a distinct group is fighting for human rights within the legal frame — China’s human rights lawyers. They defend the civil and political rights of Chinese citizens. Only after the Chinese Communist Party arrests them do we begin to notice these emerging human rights defenders.”

It’s not just human rights law. The field of environmental law has exploded in China. A movement has emerged to combat the wanton destruction of old buildings and monuments. Even the taboo subject of the death penalty has attracted a new civic initiative. China executes more people than the rest of the world combined, according to Amnesty International. “In the last 15 years, only two or three people in this country were trying to abolish the death penalty,” law professor He Weifang told The Washington Post. Now he estimates that there are enough abolitionists to qualify as “a movement.”

As FPIF columnist Walden Bello points out, workers also have been asserting their rights, with several strikes last year against transnational corporations resulting in substantial wage increases. But “a second wave of protest since May of this year, this time taking a violent riot form, has both government and the capitalist elites worried,” Bello writes in Capital Is a Fickle Lover. “The mass base of the current protests is not the relatively educated, higher-paid workers at big Japanese subsidiaries, but the low-paid migrant workers that work for small and medium Chinese-owned enterprises that turn out goods for foreign buyers.”

The Western media focuses on the courageous individuals, the Ai Weiweis and the Hu Jias and the Liu Xiaobos. These are indeed impressive people, and campaigns to free them are essential. But it’s the movements that they inspire — and the difficult and patient work of expanding the rule of law in China — that will ultimately change the face of the country.

I suspect that Ai Weiwei feels the same way. Rather than doing his art entirely in isolation, he is constantly looking for ways to involve more and more people in his productions. In 2007, he arranged for 1,001 small-town Chinese to visit Germany as part of his Fairytale project. Around 1,600 artisans participated in Sunflower Seeds project. Perhaps for his next magic trick, which will be made all the more difficult by his internal exile in Beijing, he will turn a million Chinese bureaucrats into democrats — with the help of the thousands of civic activists throughout China. Such a national transformation would be the ultimate performance art.

Out of Afghanistan?

The president has announced his withdrawal plan for Afghanistan: 10,000 troops this year and 23,000 more by the end of 2012.

“This wholly underwhelming drawdown hardly deserves that definition,” writes FPIF contributor Adam Cohen at the Focal Points blog. “By the end of 2012, the withdrawal of 33,000 troops will still leave approximately 70,000 U.S. forces in the country – twice as many as were in-theater when Obama took office. Let’s not forget the 100,000 contractors that will still be there as well. Combine these figures with whatever commensurate drawdown NATO makes from their 50,000 soldiers and there will still be a rather large military force still on the ground.”

Let’s treat this announcement as an opening gambit. It’s up to the peace movement to force the president to make a mid-course adjustment. There are big stakes involved. This drawdown is not just about Afghanistan, after all,

“How the United States handles its exit – slowly and clumsily, steadfastly but with no sensitivity to realities on the ground, or with dispatch and yet responsibly – will speak volumes about American priorities and vision for the future,” writes Cohen in Afghanistan: Going through Withdrawal. “If we maintain permanent military bases in Afghanistan, despite all the evidence of the toxic effect of our troop presence, we will not have learned very much from the previous decade of war. If we fail to support women’s struggles for political and economic equality, we will not have preserved what few victories have been made over the same period.”

The Question of Aid

The United States, along with the international community, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Timor-Leste, the half an island that attained its independence from Indonesia in 1999. Yet the nation remains locked in poverty.

“Aid in Timor-Leste has had little impact on the local economy, policy coherence, local community ownership, and long-term vision,” writes FPIF contributor Guteriano Neves in Timor: Where Has All the Aid Gone? “According to Timor-Leste’s institute for reconstruction and development La’o Hamutuk, only one out of every ten dollars spent in Timor-Leste enters the local economy. Most of it leaves the country to pay for international consultants, imported goods from other countries, military operations, and so on.”

The United States has been likewise pouring money into Egypt. But Washington now worries that its investments over the years will be jeopardized by a dramatic shift in Egyptian foreign policy — away from Israel, toward Iran, in the direction of Islamism. FPIF contributor Richard Javad Heydarian urges Washington instead to go with the flow of the revolution.

“Despite anxieties over the possible shift in Cairo’s foreign policy doctrine, Washington should ensure that the development of civil democratic institutions is not, again, compromised in the name of stability,” he writes in Egypt’s Evolving Foreign Policy. “The last thing Washington needs is the emergence of a Pakistan-like political system, where the military controls the state at the expense of economic development, democratization, and political stability.”

And the Question of Trade

When it comes to North American integration these days, two’s company and three’s a crowd. “Earlier this year, U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper jointly announced they would be restarting NAFTA-plus regulatory and security cooperation discussions, labeling the talks ‘Beyond the Border,'” writes FPIF contributor Stuart Trew in A New Perimeter to Expand NAFTA. “It marked the rebirth of the failed Security and Prosperity Partnership — leaving the increasingly complicated relation between the United States and Mexico on its own.”

The United States has been aggressively involved in the energy trade in Asia. “Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States is attempting to control a significant portion of the world’s energy supply via control of the oil and gas reserves in Azerbaijan and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and the establishment of allied regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq,” writes FPIF contributor Richard Rousseau in Pipeline Politics in Central Asia. “For the United States, the struggle over energy resources is further complicated by China and India’s continual and desperate search for more and more energy supplies, which are essential to maintain their speedy development.”

Finally, there is the baby trade, which I covered in a World Beat last year. FPIF contributor Jennifer Kwon Dobbs provides an update of what’s going on in South Korea in Ending South Korea’s Child Export Shame. “South Korea is on the verge of changing its reputation as the world’s leading baby exporter to a world leader in grassroots adoption reform,” she reports. “The first-ever birth mother, unwed mother, and adoptee co-authored bill is moving toward a National Assembly vote with government sponsorship.” Check out this model legislation to see what the future of international adoption will look like.

We’ll be taking a break next week. The next World Beat will be July 12.