Inside the Beijing studio of Ai Weiwei, He Junfeng sat at a long white table using an ink-soaked brush pen to write elaborate IOUs to the artist’s supporters.
A migrant worker from rural inland China, He says he never imagined mingling with the activists and avant-garde artists who’ve rallied around Ai as his calls for democracy and free speech brought rebuke from the Communist government. And yet, He, 36, shared their talent with a pen and their sense of rebellion, built up over two decades facing injustices on the assembly lines of China’s southern factory belt.
Using skills honed as a child, He wrote Ai’s promises to repay thousands of people who had flooded him with money to help pay a prohibitive tax fine. He wanted to do something for Ai because he says he believes the artist was being punished for defending the rights of Chinese citizens.
“There isn’t much I can do but this small act,” says He, at his home inside a Guangzhou shoe factory in southern China where he’s now a manager. “Ai is like the tidal wave and we are the small waves behind him.”
By aiding Ai’s cause in November 2011, He joined many Chinese who are seizing opportunities to fight injustice and inequality at home, from blogging to tracking environmental damage and sending money to the families of political prisoners. Their gestures come as the Communist Party government steps up pressure on people who speak out, while at the same time clamping down on corruption by officials.
Writing the names and addresses of donors on the IOUs, He noticed money had poured in from all layers of society: police officers, local government officials and manual laborers across the country. More than 28,000 people sent donations totaling more than the 8.45 million yuan ($1.38 million) the artist initially needed to pay toward the 15 million-yuan fine.
“I saw a real power emanating from the bottom of society,” says Ai, 56, sitting in the garden of his studio. “People found a channel to express themselves. Not everyone will go on the streets holding posters.”
He had followed Ai’s fortunes since 2008 when the artist led an unofficial investigation to record the details of schoolchildren killed by an earthquake in Sichuan Province, He says. Ai collected 5,196 names and accused officials of covering up shoddy school construction. The government released a similar toll without naming any of the victims.
“Ai did what ordinary people could not,” says He, smoking a cigarette and drinking green tea at his home on a hot August evening. “It took a lot of courage.”
He’s own story was shaped by his struggle to escape poverty, among hundreds of millions of people who benefited from China’s economic boom, and his passion for Chinese calligraphy, an art form that dates back several thousand years.
A farmer’s son who grew up in a mud-brick home with no running water on the outskirts of Huanggang city, central China, He says the odds were stacked against him from birth.
Calligraphy offered a diversion. He was mesmerized by the beauty of hand-written scrolls that hung inside neighbors’ homes. They featured rhyming couplets, written in black ink on gold-flecked red paper, given as housewarming gifts.
By 13, he says his gift was spotted by a school friend’s grandfather who wrote scrolls for villagers to exchange every Spring Festival, China’s New Year. The old man enlisted He as an assistant, and for three years they spent a few days together writing before each holiday.
His calligraphy stopped at 16 after he dropped out of school, he says. He and a friend took a bus 832 kilometers (517 miles) south to the expanding city of Dongguan. Tens of millions of peasants deserted inland villages in the 1990s for the promise of better wages in factories on the coast.
He can’t remember how many jobs he had, only that he couldn’t keep them. He counts at least a dozen in six years. When he got paid, he earned as little as 100 yuan a month, leaving nothing spare to send back home.
At night He slept in dorms in crowded bunk beds. There was no time for poetry or art.
“I had no control of things,” says He, rolling up his T-shirt over his small pot belly to cool himself in the summer heat. “It was like being pushed by a powerful tide.”
Locals bullied and discriminated against the migrant workers, He says. They were barred the same rights and access to services enjoyed by urban residents.
During his first job at a shoe factory, He says he was angered when factory guards beat a colleague. He organized a strike by more than 100 workers to demand the attackers be fired. He won the battle, but quit the company, he says.
At another job with a tool manufacturer, he says he retaliated when one of his bosses jumped the line at a communal water faucet. The supervisor kicked He’s bucket out of the way to put down his own. He beat up the man and was fired.
“I was young and wouldn’t tolerate anything,” He says. “The impulse was to fight.”
After being hired in 2000 by a women’s shoemaker, he quickly rose to management, he says. He married and had a son in 2003.
His social conscience grew as he read news about issues from toxic food to corruption on social networking sites, and began following people like Ai, who he says spoke up for the masses. The son of a well-known Communist poet, Ai’s prominence rose after he advised on the design of the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ iconic Bird’s Nest stadium. At the same time, Ai angered the government by publicly criticizing communist propaganda around the games.
Three years later, in 2011, He was dispatched by the shoe company to Beijing to set up a trading arm targeting Russian buyers. He says he rented an apartment in a central part of the city favored by diplomats. He had more free time, and his son, who was being raised back in his home town, was able to come live with him and his wife.
“It was a very good life,” He says.
His passion for calligraphy was rekindled one spring morning when he walked through central Ritan Park. He saw a group of men, mostly elderly, writing on the ground with pens the size of a broom. The brush tips were soaked in water, not ink, so that the words evaporated within a few minutes. Then the men started over again.
It was beautiful, he says.
After buying a long-handled pen online, he returned each morning to write alongside the men, mostly current or former high-ranking government officials.
At home in the evenings, He says he grew incensed as he followed Ai’s troubles. Ai was detained in 2011 for 81 days without charge. When he was released, his passport was confiscated, preventing him from traveling to his exhibitions overseas. Then he was fined and censors repeatedly shut down Ai’s microblogs, spurring He into action.
Nervous, He clutched a yellow envelope filled with fifteen 100-yuan bills as he approached the gate of Ai’s studio in an artsy Beijing suburb. He says he feared it might be risky as some of Ai’s associates had also been detained, so he angled his face down away from any surveillance cameras.
Inside the studio’s garden, he met Ai’s mother, Gao Ying. He glimpsed the bearded figure of Ai through a door. In the backyard, He helped pack porcelain sunflower seeds into small plastic bags to be sent to Ai’s supporters.
By the time He left, he says he didn’t bother to hide his face. So many visitors came and went, police couldn’t arrest them all, He remembers thinking.
He says he expected it to be his only visit. Within weeks, he was back. The IOUs made a splash among fans on Chinese microblogs, prompting the studio to appeal for writers.
When He arrived, someone handed him a pen. He daubed a few characters to show his skill and was invited to join.
Each IOU contained a pledge from Ai to repay every penny. Printed in traditional Chinese characters, they were headed with words for equality, fairness, justice and free speech.
The amount owed was denoted by colored stamps: gray with an image of sunflower seeds for 10 fen, or cents; blue with a mythical Llama-like creature for 100 yuan. The animal, known as a “grass mud horse,” is a symbol of protest against Internet censorship in China.
He completed as many as 80 IOUs in the day and returned about once a week on his day off for the next two months.
Liu Yi, an artist friend of Ai, says while He wasn’t a professional artist, his writing flowed well.
“He has a sense of justice, just like all Ai Weiwei fans,” Liu says in a phone interview.
One day, He posed for a photo with Ai in front of a wall covered by the names of students killed in the Sichuan quake. In it, both men raised their middle fingers, one of Ai’s trademark gestures of defiance.
After most of the IOUs were completed, Ai ordered roast lamb and threw a party to thank his volunteers. While Ai doesn’t remember He, the artist says the assistance he received helped him get through his tax ordeal.
“It’s a rare expression of people’s feelings about politics,” Ai says. “I’ve done many projects with the participation of a lot of people. Those were pre-arranged, but this was spontaneous.”
As news of the effort spread online, China’s state-run Global Times was even moved to comment. It dismissed Ai as an icon of dissent backed by the West who had the support of a tiny minority at home.
Ai appealed against the fine levied for back taxes after paying more than half of it. A Beijing court rejected his legal challenge in September last year. Ai said he wouldn’t pay the rest of the charge.
By the end of September this year, Ai had paid back more than 6 million yuan to his supporters, according to his studio.
Ai used the IOUs for his latest exhibit, called Promissory Note. Reproductions of the first 2,600 invoices are on display at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, part of a show that runs until November.
“It meant a lot to be part of such a large piece of performance art,” says He.
After the trading company closed for lack of orders, He says he returned to the shoe factory in Guangdong last year. He is now head of administration, helping oversee 600 workers who make 10,000 shoes a month, he says.
The 7,000 yuan-a-month salary he earns is an average urban wage, and he now lives in a two-room dorm. Even so, He says he’s back in a dead-end factory job and feels out of place.
When he can, He uses a brush pen from Ai’s studio to practice calligraphy. He posts his work online, putting some up for sale on China’s EBay-like shopping site, Taobao.com. He hasn’t sold any so far, he says.
Early one August morning in his dorm, as a pop song blares from loudspeakers throughout the factory to rouse workers from their beds, He stashes his own IOU he received from Ai in his workbag to keep it safe. It’s a souvenir of his time in the studio, where he says his eyes were opened.
“Now I feel a bit uncomfortable staying here,” he says, “This world is bigger than working in a factory.”