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Barnaby Martin, Hanging Man; The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (New York: Faber and Faber, 2013), 245pp.Barnaby Martin, Hanging Man; The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (New York: Faber and Faber, 2013), 245pp.

           In April of 2011, Ai Weiwei was in the Beijing airport waiting for his flight to Hong Kong when police slipped a black sack over his head and threw him into a car. Thus began eighty-one days of detention and interrogation for one of China's most outspoken dissidents. He was released that July under house arrest, a situation that began in fear and paranoia but reached a measure of normalcy by September. Normal, that is, for a man who prior to the detention had his studio bulldozed, was severely beaten, and assumes he's under permanent surveillance.

           Weiwei's art has been featured around the world. He's done painting, sculpture, film, architecture (including Beijing's Birdnest Stadium for the Olympics), photography, books, video, blogging, and virtually any medium you might imagine. In October 2011, Art Review magazine named Ai Weiwei the number one artist in the world in their annual "top 100." Most of all, he's been a "tireless critic with a vast following."

           Barnaby Martin interviewed Weiwei right after his release. This book tries to "capture that moment in time" and to shine a light on modern China. Whatever economic progress China has made, Weiwei's abduction shows that it's still not a country with transparency, accountability, freedom of expression, or rule of law. Rather, there's no guarantee against arbitrary detention, without any charges or trial.

           Martin suggests several conclusions. Weiwei remains a huge problem for China, and there's clearly internal disagreement in the Party about what to do with him. He's angered them enough to detain him, but they were ambivalent enough to release him. You might say this represents at least some progress in the last twenty years. Martin also suggests that most of China's rank-and-file "are just going through the motions, they have lost the faith." Experts disagree, of course. Weiwei says that the opaque machinations of the Party are impossible to predict. In addition to this book, I highly recommend the 90-minute documentary film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012).

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