It has been a year of shrinking horizons for China's best-known artist turned dissident, but as he has throughout his career, Ai Weiwei has turned his difficult circumstances into living performance art, exposing just how petty and paranoid even the most seemingly impregnable authoritarian system can be. Ai was released from prison in July 2011 after being held for three months on trumped-up tax-evasion charges. Once a source of pride for the Communist Party as a designer of the Beijing Bird's Nest stadium, he got on the government's bad side after ripping into its response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In September he lost his final appeal and was ordered to pay $2.4 million in back taxes; he's still not allowed to leave the country. (Many of Ai's supporters folded money into paper planes and flew them over the walls of his home to help him cover his bill.)
But Ai has found ways to occupy his time. When one of his Twitter followers asked in May whether he was working on any new artwork, Ai tweeted back, "I am the artwork." In April, he set up cameras throughout his house, providing a live feed on his website and to his 170,000 followers. ("Twitter is my city, my favorite city," he told FP this year.) The authorities soon pressured him into removing the cameras, evidently preferring that they be the only ones to watch the rotund 55-year-old work on his computer and play with his cats.
But make no mistake -- this performance art is deeply political. Throughout his career Ai has insisted that artists have a duty to humanity that outweighs the obligations of nationalism. Even declaring one's opposition to "trafficking children, selling HIV-infected blood, [and] operating slave labor coal pits" is enough to get branded as "anti-China" in today's political climate, Ai once noted on his blog, asking, "If we aren't anti-China, are we still human?"
In October, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington presented the first major U.S. retrospective of Ai's work. The artist was not in attendance.
Ai-isms: Tweets from Confinement •"Love of totalitarian propaganda is more evil than hatred." •"This country does not need to give reasons. It isn't accustomed to it, nor is it able to, until we no longer need an explanation." •"Sovereignty without human rights is just a ruler's privilege." •"Saving a country must start from saving one person." •"In the courtroom, the idiot judge went so far as to say 'Comrade Ai Weiwei'…I puked."
While members of the U.S. Congress were threatening to cancel $450 million in emergency aid promised to Egypt, the IMF's Christine Lagarde was meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council representatives and laying the groundwork for a $4.8 billion loan to rescue Egypt's damaged economy. In the wake of the Arab Spring, which slashed growth rates across the region as political instability overwhelmed already fragile economies and left nascent democracies struggling to provide basic services like water and sewage treatment, the former French finance minister -- who replaced the scandal-ridden Dominique Strauss-Kahn midway through the 2011 uprisings -- has set about filling the void.
The Middle East's destiny "lies ultimately with the region itself, but the international community also has a responsibility to help," she said one year after the protests began. Neither Washington nor Brussels has really answered the call, so Lagarde's IMF has approved $2 billion in loans for Jordan and a $6.2 billion liquidity line for Morocco, not to mention helping Tunisia improve its financial sector, Libya revamp its government payment system, and Egypt make its tax code more equitable. In total, the IMF has pledged $35 billion to the countries affected by the uprisings. U.S. President Barack Obama's funding request for Arab Spring states this year, by comparison, totalled just $770 million -- and Congress rejected it. If the Middle East ever emerges from its economic morass, Lagarde and her foresight will deserve more than a little of the credit.
It wasn't a reference you'll ever hear in Washington's corridors of power: "I say it very clearly: What is happening in Syria right now is exactly the same thing as what happened in Karbala 1,332 years ago," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this fall, referring to one of the foundational battles of Islam, which cemented the divide between Sunni and Shiite. The allusion to sectarian bloodshed may have made some Western leaders cringe, but it also showed why Turkey under Erdogan's leadership has emerged as the Middle East's indispensable power, grappling with the region's struggles over identity and religion in a way no American politician ever could. With the Arab world in disarray and the United States criticized for "leading from behind," Turkey has taken on an increasingly prominent international role, fueled by a belief that its unique culture and history make it an ideal bridge between East and West.
But as Erdogan and his cerebral academic turned foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, are discovering, that new leadership comes at a price. Their opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- Erdogan blasted his old friend as presiding over a "terrorist state" -- has created new security threats in Turkey's southeast, while the flood of more than 100,000 Syrian refugees into its territory has stretched Ankara's resources to the breaking point. Now, Erdogan and Davutoglu face a dilemma on Syria that is all too familiar in Washington: stay on the sidelines or go it alone. The premier has blasted Assad's "attempted genocide" and ordered Turkey's relentlessly globe-trotting top diplomat, the intellectual architect of the country's newly assertive foreign policy, to rouse the world to action. As Davutoglu put it before the U.N. Security Council, "How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and deliberate mass targeting?"