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Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei stands in the entrance of his studio after being released on bail in Beijing June 23, 2011. (REUTERS/DAVID GRAY/REUTERS/DAVID GRAY)
Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei stands in the entrance of his studio after being released on bail in Beijing June 23, 2011. (REUTERS/DAVID GRAY/REUTERS/DAVID GRAY)

China's Wen Jiabao, Ai Weiwei find the courage to speak out Add to ...

There are two fascinating stories unfolding in parallel in China today. Both involve people finding the courage to speak out.

In one, dissident artist Ai Weiwei is just days away from having to decide whether to pay a massive $2.4-million tax bill, facing the likely prospect of further punishment if he doesn’t. (He already spent 81 days being held by police in an undisclosed location earlier this year. The way Mr. Ai describes it, the real issue has much more to do with his outspoken criticism of the government than any problem of unpaid taxes.)

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Mr. Ai, who went uncharacteristically silent following his release in June, has returned in recent days to his acerbic criticism of the government in social media postings and Western media interviews.

Surprisingly, many ordinary Chinese have also chosen to take risks to show their disgust at how Mr. Ai is being treated. After Mr. Ai suggested he didn’t have the money to pay the fine (his mother she suggested might have to mortgage the family’s historic home to help , thousands of supporters rallied to his case.

Despite warnings from state media that such “loans” might constitute “illegal fundraising,” Mr. Ai says he’s received nearly $1-million in recent days. According to the 54-year-old avante-garde designer and sculptor, some of it came via bank transfers, others in 100-yuan notes folded into paper airplanes or wrapped around fruit and lobbed into the courtyard of his home.

“This is like a referendum. The netizens [the Chinese term for Internet users] are showing how they feel,” said Zhang Nian, a professor in the Institute of Cultural Criticism at Shanghai’s Tongji University. “They’re not giving Ai money, they’re casting their votes.”

The other case is potentially even more important to China’s future. In a recent speech to students at his former high school, Premier Wen Jiabao surprised his audience by suddenly delving into how his family was persecuted during the time of Mao Zedong. “My family suffered constant attacks in the successive political campaigns,” Mr. Wen told students at Nankai High School, in the northern port city of Tianjin.

Mr. Wen comes from a family of teachers, and intellectuals (as well as artists) who were targeted during the Anti-Rightist Movement of the 1950s and the bloody Cultural Revolution that followed.

“In 1960, my father was also investigated for so-called historical problems. He could no longer teach and was sent to work on a farm on the outskirts of the city to tend pigs, and then later worked in a library,” Mr. Wen said. He said his grandfather had been persecuted too, forced repeatedly to write “self-criticisms” before he died of cerebral haemorrhage in 1960.

Why, after keeping silent for so long about his own experience during one of the darkest periods in Chinese history, did Mr. Wen suddenly decide to tell a group of students about it in 2011?

The 69-year-old premier – considered the country’s most popular politician – has taken surprising stances in the past, most notably his declaration last fall that the China needed more democracy. Those comments, however, were blocked within China by the very censors who theoretically work for Mr. Wen’s government. Mr. Wen’s Tianjin speech has received similarly scant attention.

“This is not the first time Wen Jiabao has expressed his opinions… it’s a type of personal resistance. Talking about his own experiences during the Cultural Revolution carries no risk, but it shows his attitude on this issue,” said Zhu Dake, also of the Institute of Cultural Criticism at Tongji University. Prof. Dake said Mr. Wen seemed isolated within the higher echelons of the Party and was thus speaking out “because he has no way to change anything. He feels weak.”

But not so weak that the popular premier feels he can't speak up.

No one but Mr. Wen knows for sure why he made his Tianjin speech, but many see a link between his speech and the Part y’s new push for “cultural reforms” in China. Worried that the country may have lost its moral anchor during the rapid transition from hardcore socialism to almost unfettered capitalism, the powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party recently called for a return to “socialist core values.”

With throwback “Red” culture already the norm in the central city of Chongqing, there are those that worry that a push back towards Maoism is underway. Mr. Wen may have been trying to make clear his opposition to such a move.

Perhaps he was also trying to remind his colleagues of the ills of a society that persecutes its best and its brightest.

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