Liz Carter senior contributor

How China's Artist-Dissident, Ai Weiwei, Works His Twitter Magic

Prominent dissident and artist Ai Weiwei, subject of the recently released documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, is known for his imaginative installations and acerbic criticism of the Chinese government, but in the past several years he has also become a well-known user of social media. He first began to blog in 2006, at a time when “blogging” was a relatively new concept in China, and moved to Twitter when the government took down his blog in 2009. In doing so, he “climbed over the wall,” a phrase in Chinese which means to bypass the Great Firewall that the Chinese government has developed to censor Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other sites it finds undesirable.

Ai Weiwei participated in the designing of the "Bird's Nest," China's National Stadium in Beijing

Once on the other side, Ai hit the ground running. Only a small fraction of Chinese Internet users “climb the wall,” but a small fraction of over 500 million people is still a vibrant community. Increasingly, Twitter is becoming an attractive alternative to China’s microblogging site Weibo for some Chinese Internet users who, like Ai Weiwei, grapple with censorship. While Ai Weiwei once attempted to establish an account on Weibo, it was deleted less than two hours later by the authorities after gaining over 10,000 followers. On Twitter, however, he has over 150,000 followers and follows over 9,000 users himself. It is no exaggeration to say that he is prolific, tweeting hundreds of times a day, often more than one tweet per minute. Ai maintains that his style of Tweeting is no grand feat:

@aiww Preeetty much RT @wangkuaier He pretty much always replies to everyone he follows RT @aiww it’s not so bad RT @sadHelplessfish thanks for following, Auntie Ai. You’re following more than 9,000 people, how do you read all of those tweets?? @aiww [1]

Ai Weiwei and the police, November 2010, after he spoke out after an apartment fire in Shanghai

In truth, however, it is this way of using Twitter that sets Ai Weiwei apart from almost every other celebrity Twerp. He tweets on a grand and sometimes overwhelming scale. Instead of the occasional, sterile 140-character update on showings of his work at globally renowned museums and galleries, Auntie Ai, as he is known to some of his followers, spends hours a day chatting about life, the universe, and everything. A typical interchange goes something like this:

@aiww nah not yet RT @GoogolMo: @aiww have you eaten yet? [2]

Or this:

@aiww morning RT @calvinkevins: @aiww, good morning [3]

One of Ai’s most common responses to followers on Twitter is the character “嗯,” onomatopoeia for the sound made in the back of the throat without opening one’s mouth, indicating agreement, acknowledgement, or active listening. John Pasden, who runs Sinosplice and the Chinese language learning site ChinesePod, has called it a “communicative grunt” and “the Chinese version of ‘yup.’” Ai also has a habit of switching out characters for others that are pronounced similarly but written differently–similar to the practice of writing “hai” instead of “hi,” or “u” instead of “you.” His unpretentious and engaging conversational style reflects his belief, voiced in many interviews, that connection is an extremely important part of both life and art.

Ai Weiwei, thumbing his nose at the cops

It is no surprise, then, that Ai Weiwei is among the most popular Chinese-language user of Twitter. Some of his tweets are also available in English, translated by a group of volunteers who run @aiwwenglish. Due to his tweeting volume, however, they have elected not to translate everything, instead focusing on tweets that are just from him or that contain significant content.

In the tweets that remain untranslated, Ai Weiwei banters with followers about nothing in particular, or arranges to mail them copies of his documentaries and sunflower seeds from his recent installation, which he seems to share freely with anyone who asks. Even when the company that manages much of Ai’s work, FAKE Design, had its second hearing for tax-related charges in a Beijing district court, a friend tweeted a photograph of him in costume, smiling as he thumbed his nose at the police who prevented him from leaving his home that day.

Followers of @aiww number only a quarter of a million, placing him well below the top 100 most popular Weibo users. The state-run Global Times maintains that while idolized by the West, Ai Weiwei is “rejected” by most people in China and has “failed to make much of a dent” in Chinese society. Still, he remains a famous artist in China and throughout the world, despite pervasive censorship of his name and work. Ai Weiwei’s presence on Twitter is a part of Chinese social media that extends beyond the Great Firewall, showing how technology enables netizens to connect and express themselves despite such barriers.

Ai Weiwei is a firm believer in such freedom of expression. When I asked on Twitter if he would mind the publication of this article, he simply replied, “Haha, do you need any nude pics~ ” [4]. 

Ai Weiwei asked if we need his nude pic. But we found one with him (almost) naked already!


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Liz Carter

Liz Carter is a DC-based China-watcher and the author and translator of a number of Chinese-English textbooks available on amazon.cn. She and her cat Desmond relocated to DC from Beijing, where she studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University, after learning that HBO was planning to adapt Game of Thrones for television. She writes at abigenoughforest.com and tweets from @withoutdoing.
  • David

    Twitter, as well as many other sites are blocked in China. You can however access it with a VPN or a proxy, most expats there have one. Anyway, I used http://www.sunvpn.com/ while there, worked like a charm every time.