Ai Weiwei: 'Every day I think, this will be the day I get taken in again...'
The more he is harassed by his government, the more Ai Weiwei becomes a symbol of activism in China. But how much longer can he continue to speak out?
The surveillance camera police have trained on the turquoise gate of Ai Weiwei's studio in north Beijing captures a steady stream of visitors; journalists, well-wishers, the art crowd. Five months after his release from an 81-day detention, and in the wake of a fortnight of extraordinary expressions of public support, Ai is anticipating other arrivals. "Every day I think, 'this will be the day I will be taken in again.'
"That's also the impression they [the authorities] try to create, not just to me but to the whole society; to anybody who has different opinions," he adds.
A few years ago the celebrated Chinese artist was a well-established figure in the international and domestic art worlds; provocative, certainly, but respectable enough to co-design the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing and be covered by Chinese state media. Then his outspoken views and activism triggered clashes with authority, culminating in this year's detention – part of a broader crackdown on activists, lawyers and dissidents that saw dozens held and more harassed, threatened or placed under other restrictions. He has become, to many, the face of human rights in China: more a symbol than a person.
"The fact the government disappeared him, and then afterwards continued to go after him through various charges, sends a signal to other activists that even if you are well known it does not really protect you," says Wang Songlian of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders Network. "On the other hand, the way he turned it around was very clever, and I think activists have been energised."
"It's never about me," says Ai, now 54. "[My supporters] use me as a mark for themselves to recognise their own form of life: I become their medium. I am always very clear about that."
Ai emerged from his ordeal in June, far slimmer – having lost almost 10kg, some of which he has regained – and apparently chastened.
"My energy was very low after these 81 days and I really needed the time to recover, mentally and physically. I was quite fragile," he acknowledges. "I tried to do much less, because I also think this is not a game I can play. If they can make you disappear, why do you still play this game? Ridiculous.
"But even if you don't speak, they still put these false accusations on you … So then you feel, if you don't speak, you are part of this crime. I guess both sides are very disappointed." He laughs.
There are fewer flashes of the puckish humour these days and he is more cautious in his pronouncements, but he is nonetheless saying more than the government would like, and recent actions by his supporters speak still louder. When authorities handed him a £1.5m tax bill, thousands helped him pay the first tranche, some flinging money over the studio walls. When police mooted the possibility that he was guilty of pornography – in relation to photos picturing him and four women, all naked – they tweeted nude pictures of themselves.
"We are trying to work with a very limited space. To people who do not understand the conditions, it may look ridiculous. But to us, that's the only space," he says.
"Normally people feel powerless. That's how society becomes a society, if they think they have a little power and support and help to solve the problem."
The downside is not only the risk of authorities using the donations against him – by deeming it illegal fundraising – but the ever-increasing expectations of his supporters. He was "thrilled" to learn how much support he had received during his detention, but the pressure from both sides has become hard to bear.
"One side has so much hope they put on my shoulders. I cannot really help them. I can't even help me; my condition [situation] is quite bad," he observes.
As he talks, a black spaniel is snuffling around the table; it's not hard to see why Ai has such a fondness for his numerous pets. "I think they are in a parallel world … They don't really care. I was in, I was out; they are always here."
The passion and fury Ai inspires make it easy to overstate his influence. He is well known to art lovers in China, but a very long way from being a household name. He has galvanised people who would not normally make political statements; but they are a tiny proportion of even the educated elite, never mind the rest of the country's 1.3bn population.
His bleak view of China has also been questioned. It is true that people are far freer to criticise authority than 30 or even 10 years ago; that their personal freedoms are vastly expanded and that many are broadly satisfied with the tacit deal – growing economic prosperity in exchange for political limits.
But others share his concern about the Communist party's rigid grip on power as it strives to reassert control over mainstream and social media, and to roll back some of the space that an embryonic civil society has carved out. Last week prominent Chinese legal scholar Jiang Ping warned that the country increasingly resembled a dictatorship.
The Chinese government insists Ai's case is unrelated to human rights and that he was held for tax evasion; critics say the western media have lionised him when they should be assessing his financial records. But it is impossible to do so; police confiscated the documents of the company that handled his affairs. Ai deems the tax bill "political revenge or punishment" and says it has no factual basis.
"It is legitimate to ask whether Ai Weiwei or, more accurately, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, owes taxes," Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based independent human rights researcher, wrote recently.
"It is also legitimate to raise questions about political motivations behind the prosecution, because of the particular way in which the police intervened in this case prior to any investigation by tax authorities, the fact that Ai's disappearance was carried out in the context of dozens of other detentions … unambiguously political in nature, and the way the propaganda machinery has been mobilised to smear his reputation."
Ai was reportedly interrogated more than 50 times during his detention, but about his views and activism rather than his financial dealings. He does not go into detail about what happened but points out that many of the others detained this spring were treated far worse. According to the accounts that have trickled out some were beaten; many were deprived of sleep, forced to sit in stress positions and threatened. Several still show clear symptoms of trauma, say friends.
"I think I recovered the most. About 100 people were taken in. Only a few have spoken out. Most of them [seem] to be silenced for ever – some you can see are completely crushed," Ai says.
"It's hard to recover. You become not so innocent. You become, in a way, more sophisticated, which I think you shouldn't. We should all have more simple happiness ... You become bitter."
And yet, he adds: "Maybe there is something I got from it. Maybe you also start to be clear on certain things."
The parallels with his father's case are inescapable. Ai Qing was a revered poet, which in part explains the relative protection his son has enjoyed, but endured years of persecution after being condemned as a rightist. "His whole heart loved art and literature. But he was crushed; he almost committed suicide several times," says Ai, who grew up in a labour camp.
"My voice is not for me. Every time I make a sentence I think how many people for how many generations had a voice that no one could hear. At most they will be remembered as numbers; in many cases, even numbers don't exist.
"I think I have this responsibility for my father's generation, and especially future generations."
Still, he insists, "I am not a dissident" – simply someone put on the spot by the government's actions.
Amid the political storm, it is easy to lose sight of Ai's artistic record. His work is on show in London, Berlin and Taipei; next year will see exhibitions in Sweden, France and the Netherlands. More remarkably, a gallery in Beijing is exhibiting some of his past work – including the list of names of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake. His attempts to tally the deaths of those who had died in shoddily constructed schools put him on a collision course with authorities.
Friends say he views the outside world critically, too; his 2007 work, Fairytale, in which he transported 1,001 compatriots to Germany, was not only about exposing participants to another way of life, but about challenging European perceptions of the Chinese.
His studio is busy again, but "I don't really care that much about if I want to be more successful or less successful in art, because I never think life and art should be separate," Ai says. "What's life if you don't have conversation and joy and anger?"
Activism is the inevitable result of his art, rather than a distraction from it: "If I was a scientist maybe [restrictions on expression] wouldn't bother me – but as an artist, finding a way to communicate with people is the core activity."
In an authoritarian society, he adds, that can only lead to conflict. Many wonder if Ai will tire of the unending tussle and move abroad. His conditions of release prevent him from leaving Beijing for a year, but the government would probably be happy to see him go; critics usually slip from public view once they emigrate.
He says he has to respect the opinions of his family, but thinks it important "to try to stay here as long as possible".
In any case, China has, he says, "braver, more brilliant" young people than him, with a fresh set of ideas.
"That's also quite encouraging. It's about life, actually. It's a story about life," he says. Not about him.
Five other figures of dissent in China
The blind lawyer was jailed for damaging property and obstructing traffic after helping women who had suffered forced abortions. He has been under house arrest since his release last year; scores of activists have shown their support by attempting to visit his village in Shandong, despite being beaten and harassed by thugs there.
Beijing was furious when the Nobel committee awarded the jailed author the peace prize last year. He is serving an 11-year sentence for subversion of state power, having co-authored Charter 08, a call for democratic reform in China. Officials say he is a criminal, not a dissident.
The poet had little interest in politics, but spoke out about her husband Liu Xiaobo's case and vanished after he won the Nobel prize. She is thought to be under house arrest; in February she made brief online contact with a friend, saying she was a hostage and no one could help her.
Once feted by authorities, the lawyer angered them by taking on sensitive cases such as those relating to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. He vanished in 2009 and alleged – during a brief and bizarre reappearance last year – that police had subjected him to sustained torture.
Clashes with officials over housing rights left the lawyer disabled and homeless. She was among the many detained this spring; while most have been released, Ni and her husband are awaiting trial for "creating a disturbance". Human rights groups say they are increasingly concerned about her health.
Comments in chronological order (Total 4 comments)
26 November 2011 12:29AM
I really feel for this guy. Anyone who goes (peacefully) against the tide in the face of embarrassment, backlash, physical violence or worse, I think is an inspiration. I wish him all the best.
26 November 2011 1:45AM
Ai Weiwei is in a difficult place. Much of what he says is completely justifiable. A large part of his problem is the way Western media latches onto him as an icon. The Dalai Lama is in the same position. Both are straw dogs for the plentiful sinopaths, meaning the psychopaths who stoke sinophobia in Western populations for reasons of egotism and hate.
Both are hindered from being effective in their environments by their artificial and contorted supporters such as Richard Gere; supporters who know very little about the truth of the varied perspectives in the reality of their idols. Left to their own devices they could be highly effective in changing the reality on the ground in their localities, but unfortunately both have snuggled up to the sinopaths because of their own egotism and are therefore the other large part of their present problem.
To sum it up, both of these personalities are set up as sacrificial straw dogs by the destructive egos of twisted people who shout their support for reasons of self worship and whatever China does they will be whipped by this bundle of strange beings.
Princess Di was also a straw dog.
(A straw dog is a small bundled straw facsimile of a dog that is used for ceremonial purposes. Highly venerated for the duration of the ceremony it is cast aside as straw immediately the ceremony is finished)
26 November 2011 2:00AM
A lovely article, Tania, thoughtful and balanced - thank-you. Ai Weiwei is a great man, and an astutely self-aware one, too - "It's never about me ...[My supporters] use me as a mark for themselves to recognise their own form of life.." - what stirring words.
And he makes the point that others were treated far worse - that, too, is noble. I recall meeting a young woman who'd been in a 're-education' camp because she was a Falun Gong supporter. She was... absent, haunted, cracked, pale. Fuck knows what the state goons did to her, but whatever it was they did it hard...
Indeed though Ai has become an icon, a face for Chinese state repression, it is not a role he asks for or seeks.
A brave man and the kind of person who - like the tank man - puts me in awe of the strength of will of some people in the face of tyranny.
26 November 2011 2:27AM
Both are hindered from being effective in their environments by their artificial and contorted supporters.
Ai Wei's Wei's very fame is what is protecting him now. Do you think he would still be free if he hadn't become a household word in the West over the last year? do you think he isn't newsworthy? Shall we just ignore these people in the hope the CCP will go easier on them? You seem unwilling to attach blame to the one group of people who are actually responsible for this unending tale of misery.
The Party have a huge problem with AWW, I agree. He is now the most famous person born in Mainland China in the last 100 years. Only Mao was better known in modern times. This means they simply can't 'dissapear' him as they normally would. This is unchartered territory for the CCP. And as we all know, they are not very good when it comes to dealing with new challenges.
And I would suggest that conflating hatred of the Party and a hatred of Chinese people in the term "sinopath" is your own disingenous 'straw dog.'