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Zhao Zhao in stills from his video “Happenings/A-100-12” (image courtesy Alexander Ochs Galleries, via Der Spiegel)

Even before the current documentary about him was out in theaters, Ai Weiwei had become the poster child for China’s repression of dissenting artists. But Der Spiegel has a profile of 30-year-old Zhao Zhao, a former assistant of Ai’s and an artist in his own right who’s been facing increased pressure from the government because of his work.

Zhao was supposed to show later this year in New York with dealer Christophe Mao (presumably at Chambers Fine Art, where the artist has exhibited before) but rather than ship his work to the US, Chinese customs police instead confiscated it. One of the works consisted of deliberately broken pieces of a monumental concrete sculpture of a police officer; the number on the officer’s uniform was the date on which Ai was arrested last year.

Not only did the government confiscate Zhao’s art, however; it also slapped him with a 300,000 yuan fine (roughly $48,000) for no apparent reason. Sound familiar? Ai was charged wtih a 15 million yuan fine for “tax evasion” after his release from detention last year. Der Spiegel offers some insight into this tactic:

China’s tax laws have long been opaque, a deliberate gray zone, and now they’re being used as an instrument of arbitrary whim, and of constant intimidation. It’s said that members of China’s state police even visit the opening receptions of Chinese artists who show their work at New York galleries — or at least, says Ochs, those are the rumors one hears in Beijing.

Authorities tell Zhao that even if he pays — which he says he would like to but currently can’t afford to do — he won’t get his art back. They’ll let him see it once more, and then they’ll destroy it. Again, sound familiar? Chinese authorities demolished Ai’s brand new Shanghai studio in a day, after reportedly inviting him to build it nearly two years prior.

Installation view of a broken officer sculpture by Zhao Zhao at Chambers Fine Art, 2011 (image via

And let’s not forget the major Forbes article this month that exposed elaborate levels of fraud in the Chinese art market, which just earlier this year was still being lauded as the next hot spot in the global market. Forbes writer Abigail Esman quotes an art lawyer who explains that China’s major auction house, Poly Auctions, is “the auction arm of the People’s Liberation Army.” Well, isn’t that lovely? According to Esman, Poly is probably also inflating prices and manipulating sales.

All of this paints a troubling — to say the least — picture. While much of the art world, particularly in the West, exists in a self-contained bubble, but in China, it seems to be just another industry caught in the web of repressive state.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...