August 15, 2018

China Can’t Even Deal With a Pro-Ai Weiwei T-Shirt

By Zoe Li, from

Via Instagram.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s campaign to get his passport back has met another setback. An online shop selling t-shirts with the slogan ”Ai Can’t Be Here” has been shut down by the e-commerce platform Taobao.

According to the New York Times, the owner of the shop, Wu Tun, is an artist currently employed by Ai’s studio. The 28-year-old printed images of a brick wall onto T-shirts with the slogan ”̤蠱Can’t Be Here” emblazoned on top. The Chinese character ̤蠱 means ”love” and is a homonym of Ai Weiwei’s surname. The phrase thus has a double meaning: ”Love/ Ai Weiwei Can’t Be Here.”

The online shop was shut down after just four days, having sold just 10 T-shirts.

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei had his passport confiscated three years ago and is under 24-hour surveillance. Openly critical of the Chinese government, Ai was incarcerated for 81 days in 2011 for alleged tax evasion. The button-pushing artist later recreated scenes from his incarceration in a large installation ”S.A.C.R.E.D.” at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

Earlier this year, Ai’s supporters started a campaign to get his passport back (see “Ai Weiwei Asks For His Passport Back“). Harnessing the power of social media, Ai fans have photographed themselves with the slogan ”Ai Can’t Be Here” and posted the images to Instagram. Ai Can’t Be Here project organizers promise to send free T-shirts printed with the slogan to those who upload 20 photos or more.

But with Instagram constantly blocked or censored by authorities in the Chinese mainland, buying the statement T-shirts from Wu Tan’s online shop became an alternative for supporters of the campaign.

That option was short-lived. The shop was shut down this week with no warning. Wu merely received an unceremonious notice that his shop was in violation of Taobao’s regulations.

Taobao’s parent company, Alibaba, completed the biggest initial public offering two months ago and logged a record $9 billion in sales on a single day on November 11. Critics say the e-commerce giant is motivated by the fear of politics, but its founder Jack Ma explains his company’s success is due to an avoidance of politics.

“As a business, if you cannot change the law, follow the law. Respect the local government. We’re not interested in politics. We’re just focused on e-commerce,” Ma famously said back in 2005.

Ai Weiwei told the New York Times by telephone that he was not aware of Wu Tan selling T-shirts in support of his freedom and criticized Taobao for shutting down the shop. ”There’s no room to discuss anything,” Ai said. ”Not even if it’s on a T-shirt.”


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