Let a Hundred Volunteers Bloom

What a New Documentary on Ai Weiwei Reveals About Activism in China

As China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition begins in Beijing next month, the government’s treatment of high-profile critics such as the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo will invariably garner attention inside the country and abroad. The persecution of such dissidents certainly merits discussion, but it must not obscure a larger phenomenon: the emergence of widespread populist activism in China.

At first, Alison Klayman’s new documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” seems to fit this perspective, by focusing on the singular work, political activism, and daily life of Ai Weiwei, the world-famous Beijing-based artist and outspoken government critic. In raising subjects that are usually airbrushed from the Chinese media, the film contains much that the Chinese leadership will dislike. It highlights Ai’s international celebrity and his ability to mobilize large numbers of people through social media, the naked brutality of the Chinese police, and the still-debilitating aftereffects of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  

But “Never Sorry” does much more than call attention to the work of Ai and the well-known artists, writers, and critics he interacts with. The most poignant aspect of the documentary -- and the one that senior Chinese leaders would find most alarming -- is expressed by a woman who had volunteered with a project that Ai led to compile the names of schoolchildren who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake when their shoddily constructed schools collapsed. She recalls how, when the authorities asked her whom she was working for, she replied, “We were all volunteers, there on our own. The way I see it, we weren’t there as anybody’s ‘people.’ ” 

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