The last week of the 22nd session of the UN Human Rights Council has just begun and in this blog we decided to explore a topic that rose many concerns in the past weeks both among the international community and in the recent International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) in Geneva: human rights abuses in China.

The FIFDH on China and Ai Weiwei: why should he be sorry?

The incredibly massive queue to attend the night dedicated to the Chinese dissent and contemporary art star Ai Weiwei during the FIFDH astonished even the festival organisers, who had to rush to open a handful more venues to allow people to attend the debate. Such enthusiastic participation clearly demonstrates two things: Ai has become a sort of digital ‘hero’ and people worldwide are getting more and more interested in human rights violations in China. That is good news!

The main event of the night was the screening of Never Sorry by Alison Klayman, a fascinating portrait of the private, artistic and political life of one of the most complex and controversial figures of today’s China, as well as a clear picture of the current lack of political, social and cultural rights in the country.

Son of a renowned poet fallen into political disfavour, Ai Weiwei incarnates the idea that being free to be oneself within the Chinese society is possible. His eccentric, magnetic personality and defiant sense of humour have made of him a world-acclaimed voice of dissent and an irrepressible government critic. And he is no sorry for that. He defines himself a ‘chess player’ waiting for his opponent’s next move in order to respond to it with his powerful weapons: art and blogging. Both are symbols of imagination, creativity and freedom, and as such they are often repressed, controlled and censored.

Art as a political act

Although the Chinese government did not allow him to leave the country, Ai was the president of the jury of the FIFDH: his engagement in artistic activities related to human rights is by itself an outspoken political act promoting freedom of expression.

Watching Never Sorry, it is impossible not to get a sense of how powerful art can be as an instrument of political denunciation. His huge installation of backpacks denounced the killing of children due to the collapse of poorly built government schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. His short film How to Scientifically Remove a Shiny Screw with Chinese Characteristics from a Moving Vehicle in Eighteen Turns is a statement against the strict security measures taken by the government during the 18th Party Congress and the lack of democracy in the country’s single-party rule.

Opportunities and risks of the revolution 2.0

The second weapon of denunciation Ali uses is his blog, which allows him to bypass the Great Firewall. But can social media play in China the same role they played during the Arab Spring in the MENA region?

The idea was mentioned not only during the FIFDH debate, but also during the FIFDH and Human Rights Watch co-sponsored side event organised at the UN during the Human Rights Council. During such event, the importance of the Internet as a tool to peacefully express different opinions was underlined, without forgetting to mention the risks that digital activism entails.

The China Director of Human Rights Watch stressed how some Chinese find a way of operating within the system and within the law by posting pieces of art with a political content on social media. Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of expression; however, she warned, art and digital activism are not as appreciated by the Chinese government as they are abroad.

Women and human rights in China

That is particularly true for the currently imprisoned Chinese poet and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiabo, who was mentioned more than once during the side event. His participation in the writing of the Charter 08, a 2008 manifesto asking for an independent legal system, freedom of association and the elimination of the single-party rule, made of him one of the most prominent human rights and rule of law advocates in China. But, as was reminded during the meeting, through his imprisonment the Chinese government clearly stated that ‘reform is simply not acceptable’.

The Chinese human rights activist and lawyer currently in exile in the US, Chen Guagchen, joined our discussion via Skype. With a calm but firm voice, he called for more transparency and accountability in China, especially on the delicate subject of forced abortions and violence against women in the enforcement of the one-child policy. The importance of the Internet and social media was once again underscored when he suggested Chinese law students should read digital sources to get to know international law standards.

The opportunities of progress
Ai Weiwei's Twitter comment

Ai Weiwei’s comment on its social media profile

All the Human Rights Council meetings and film discussions on human rights in China we attended in the past weeks had one common point: the dualism between the exceptional economic development of the country on the one hand and its controversial human rights record and economic inequalities on the other.

Over 20 years after the Tiananmen Square events, Chinese people have now the opportunity to possess and use digital devices, social media and the Internet. WILPF strives to raise awareness on women and human rights among its website and social media followers and we have many readers and friends in China. What do you think the role of digital media, creativity and art should be? Do you think that social media can have an impact and improve human rights situations?

Share your opinion, tell us what you think!