A candid conversation with the Chinese dissident about being Beijing’s top target, using Twitter against oppression and how art can change society.
The artist Ai Weiwei is the Chinese government’s worst nightmare: an internationally revered art star who uses his work and celebrity to advocate for democracy and free speech in a nation with neither. The government has employed a draconian campaign to silence him. Ai is under constant surveillance. He has been threatened, placed under house arrest and physically attacked by a police officer. Ai’s incendiary blog, read by thousands of Chinese citizens, disappeared one day. And so did he: In 2011, state police grabbed him at the airport, threw a black bag over his head and drove him to an undisclosed location, where he languished for 81 days in a tiny prison cell. Despite these attacks, Ai has continued his virulent criticism of the Chinese Communist leadership, which he deems repressive, immoral and illegitimate.
Ai’s dissidence is particularly discomfiting to the Chinese government as it attempts to retain its stranglehold on its citizens while also cementing its position as a global economic powerhouse. Ai’s domestic and international influence is growing. Using art, technology and civil disobedience in his antigovernment campaign, he continues to embarrass the regime—and threaten it. Most observers agree that if it weren’t for his international celebrity, Ai would still be imprisoned, like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence, or he’d be exiled, like blind dissident Chen Guangcheng. The last time Ai was imprisoned there were worldwide protests; world leaders including Hillary Clinton called for his release.
Ai’s political activism and art are informed by his tumultuous childhood. His father, Ai Qing, one of China’s most revered poets, studied in Paris before returning to China in 1932, when he was arrested by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party. With the Communist takeover, the elder Ai was for a time in favor of Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s regime. Then he wrote a poem that extolled the virtues of a culture that celebrated rather than repressed multiple voices. For this he was exiled to a “reeducation” camp, where he was humiliated, beaten and forced to clean toilets for nearly two decades. Ai Weiwei spent his early years in the camp.
After the Cultural Revolution, Ai attended the Beijing Film Academy. In 1981 he left for the United States, where he studied English, worked odd jobs and made art. He returned to China after 12 years and worked as an architect, artist and antiques dealer. He gained international attention for his collaboration with the architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron on the design of Beijing’s National Stadium, nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, built for the 2008 Olympics. His reputation in the fine-art world grew too. His controversial pieces include a series of photographs in which he uses the international hand gesture for “fuck you” to send a not very subtle message to the Chinese government. He smashed Neolithic pottery, created a giant sculpture out of Qing dynasty stools, built a breathtaking art installation in Munich out of 9,000 children’s backpacks to commemorate the thousands of students killed when their schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (he blames the high death toll on the Chinese government for allowing the schools’ shoddy construction) and spread a sea of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds across a gallery in the Tate Modern in London.
After being released from prison in June 2011 Ai was placed under house arrest. By 2012 he was no longer confined to his Beijing compound, but the government held his passport, preventing him from leaving the country. He was unable to attend the opening of a major survey of his work at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.
Since Ai couldn’t leave China, we sent Contributing Editor David Sheff to meet him there. Sheff, who has interviewed Representative Barney Frank, journalist Fareed Zakaria and Apple’s Steve Jobs for us, reports, “Over the course of the days we spent together, I accompanied Ai on his daily walks through a Beijing park. He said he walks so he’ll be in better physical shape if he’s arrested again. Following these walks, each afternoon he visits his young son, who was born in 2009 to a girlfriend; Ai has been married to artist Lu Qing for 17 years. Though he lives with the constant threat of arrest, each evening after his time with his son Ai takes his place in front of a computer and spends six or more hours writing illegal Twitter messages to 200,000 followers. Helped by a coterie of hackers, he manages to circumvent the government’s ‘Great Firewall’ to send out missives about what he considers his government’s latest sins.”
DS: Other renowned Chinese dissidents have been either imprisoned or exiled. Why are you allowed to remain free?
AI: I don’t know if I am free. There’s a threat always that any minute I could be arrested. Why they don’t arrest me now I don’t know. I don’t know why they arrested me the last time. I don’t know why they let me go after three months. They said I would be in for 10 years.
DS: Do you know why they’re holding your passport?
AI: There has been no explanation. I don’t know why, because if they don’t want me to leave the country, they could stop me at the airport. The government doesn’t explain. They don’t have to explain. The Communists who run China picture themselves as above the rest of society—as the best men, a superman society. They believe they are made of special materials. That is their own words. They’re elite. They tell you only what they want to tell you. So of course you will never get any clear answer about any event that happened in the past 60 years. My father, when he was sent away, never knew who made the decision, how the decision was made or why. Three hundred thousand intellectuals were crushed by a single political moment with the Cultural Revolution. None of them got a clear answer about why. Now it’s decades later, and what surprises me most is that after being in power all this time, this government should have built a better society, one that’s more open. They should trust the people. They should explain and discuss and negotiate. All those things are completely lacking in this society.
DS: Do you assume you were freed and for the moment remain free because of pressure from the international community?
AI: Maybe if the government could get away with it, without anyone knowing, you would not see me again.
DS: Is it gratifying to know that Hillary Clinton and other world leaders called for your release from prison?
AI: It’s very surprising. Yes, it was very good. But there are so many people arrested. And worse than arrested. Why does no one speak about them? Just yesterday the number reached 92 Tibetans who have burned themselves to death because of the Chinese oppression of Tibet. Most were Buddhist monks. I don’t see much international outcry for them. It’s a hopeless cry for them, and no one listens.
DS: Then perhaps your celebrity saves you, the support from political leaders and other prominent people from the West. Last November Elton John shocked a Beijing audience by dedicating a concert to you. Did that surprise you?
AI: I was so happy but also shocked. Such a pure man. That’s not done; people don’t say my name out loud in public like that. The audience would never think somebody would have that kind of free, clear expression in a situation like that. It will always remain in my mind.
DS: Do any prominent Chinese in China stand up for you and other dissidents?
AI: No. It’s too dangerous. But there are some in the young generation of artists who do. Of course they have all been taken to the police station.
DS: While you were in prison, were you aware of the protests and calls for your release?
AI: I had no idea. I was just a little piece dropped into a dark corner, into a hole.
“Without the internet, no person could say anything and be heard. It’s not that everyone can know, because the government controls the internet. But some people can know.”
DS: You didn’t know if anyone was worrying about you?
AI: No, but of course you know your family is.
DS: Why is one man—an artist— such a threat to the government of a nation with 1.3 billion people and the second-largest economy in the world?
AI: Even to question the government can have a strong impact on its control. All my father asked for was to have a variety of expressions in literature and art. Rather than just one type of flower, he said there should be a whole garden. It’s so pitiful, because every flower deserves its own identity and has its own beauty. That simple idea is seen as a threat to the Communist leadership, which is a military-police type of leadership. They want to take away any variety of expression.
DS: How does free speech threaten them? They’re firmly in control.
AI: If people question—if people don’t accept what they tell us—maybe the leaders will have to go. It’s like during the research we did after the earthquake to find out who was missing. We simply wanted to know the names of the victims. We asked the government for their names, ages and which school they went to. We made 200 phone calls to government officials. They wouldn’t release any information. I built up my anger and frustration. One by one we found the students’ names, all the information related to them. We interviewed hundreds of parents. It was a very painful research study.
DS: Why would that threaten the government? Why would officials not want the names released?
AI: Maybe they worried that if people knew, they’d question the bad construction of the structures, the schools and buildings that collapsed. That can have some political impact. Next the people ask, “Who’s responsible?”
DS: Your efforts to learn who died in the earthquake resulted in a list of the names of 5,000 students.
AI: Fifty-two hundred.
DS: You then made an international statement about the earthquake by creating a facade on a Munich museum comprising 9,000 children’s backpacks. What were you trying to communicate?
AI: The backpacks spelled out the words of a mother whose daughter was one of the students killed. The mother said, “She lived happily for seven years in this world.” People should not forget this, and the government does not want it to be remembered.
DS: Where were you when you heard about the earthquake?
AI: In Beijing, and even in Beijing we could feel it a little bit.
DS: What was your reaction when you heard of the magnitude?
AI: I was stunned. Speechless. Back in 2005 some people had created a blog for me. I realized it was a great opportunity to try to write something. I have always admired people who write. My father was a writer. He wrote very clearly what was in his mind. I think writing is a beautiful skill. I needed to learn, because I never had a chance when I grew up in the Cultural Revolution, when the whole education system failed. So I felt frustrated, and here was this beautiful tool to write and communicate.
At the beginning I was just putting photos of my artwork on the blog and writing a little. Then I realized I could talk about the social conditions. Each morning I read the newspaper, and there would always be quite a few points to talk about. I’m a person who has many opinions on everything. People always tell me, “Oh, you just want to argue.” Yes, I want to argue, because everything should be argued. Because nobody else in China argues, my arguments become relevant. Suddenly my blog became very popular, because nobody was so openly talking about those things. I wrote every day, day and night, but when the earthquake came I was speechless and couldn’t write a word for seven days. It was such a big tragedy. I could not write anything.
DS: Why did you begin collecting the names of earthquake victims?
AI: Since they didn’t release the names, I must. Every day I put our new findings of names that we collected on the blog. It could be one, it could be 20. So many people were reading it. They all had the same questions: Why is this artist doing this by himself? Why isn’t the government doing this? What kind of government do we have? That really shook the foundation of this government, because they knew nobody would trust them.
DS: Did the government ask you to stop posting the names?
AI: Day after day I did this until one day almost a year later, 2009, a very high-up official called and said, “Weiwei, can you stop?” I said, “Well, it’s a little too late. I have to find the last person’s name, and that is the only way I can stop.” I said, “But there is one way for me to stop, and that is if you start to announce those names. Why can’t you do it? I mean, once you do it, then I don’t have to do it. It’s not my job. It’s not a particularly happy moment when I do that.” But of course they would not do it.
DS: The earthquake occurred the same year as the Beijing Olympics. Why did you object to the Olympics, one of China’s proudest moments, especially after your prominent role as co-designer of the Bird’s Nest stadium, the focal point of the Games?
AI: In 2007, one year before the opening, they began a so-called countdown to the Olympics. I saw this celebration on a friend’s television. The whole show brought up memories of growing up under the Communists. They were trying to glamorize the Communist Party. Also, they were already tightening security in Beijing for the Olympics. It was becoming like a police state. They sent all the vagrants out of the city. They took away the visas from all the students who worked in the city. You could see so clearly that all they wanted was to throw a glamorous party for the benefit of the foreign media and for the world to see the power of the Communist Party. They were trying to tell the world, “We are the same as you.” But actually they were saying, “We have more. We can do something you can never do. You could never do this grand Olympics.” It made me disgusted. A journalist called and asked if I watched it. I said yes, and he asked, “How do you feel about it?” I said, “I’m disgusted,” and he asked, “Will you be part of a celebration?” I said no. They published the next day that the Olympic stadium designer was boycotting the games.
DS: Weren’t you proud of the Bird’s Nest, which received worldwide acclaim?
AI: I’m proud of the architecture. I love it, but I hated the way it was going to be used. I hate the way it was used.
DS: When you openly criticized the Olympics, were you chastised or asked to get with the program?
AI: No. The government people will never tell you directly, never show their feelings. It’s like a whole table of poker players. They hate you to death, but it’s like, “We’ll get you later,” because they know they will get you later.
DS: You once said that your generation has to do better than your father’s generation in its efforts to change China, because his “didn’t do a good job.” What did you mean?
AI: They sacrificed so much but did not achieve anything.
DS: What has changed between then and now that makes you think you can do better?
AI: It’s a different time. China was very isolated. Now China is trying to be global, so there’s an opening and a chance to use a higher standard. And there’s the internet.
DS: How significant is the internet?
AI: Without the internet, no person could say anything and be heard. Now everyone can know about the earthquake. Everyone can know about a person they put in prison. No, it’s not that everyone can know, actually, because the government controls the internet very well. But some people can know. It’s a small group, because they must know how to get around the firewall.
“It’s a different time. China was very isolated. Now China is trying to be global, so there’s an opening and a chance to use a higher standard.”
DS: How dangerous is it to defy the government’s regulations and use the internet for political discourse or to organize political campaigns?
AI: Very dangerous. Most people on the internet use fake names. They don’t reveal their identities. But of course if they want, the government can find out very easily who they are.
DS: Your blog was shut down, but now you’re on Twitter. How do you manage to use Twitter, which is blocked in China behind the Great Firewall?
AI: After they shut off my blog, a guy said, “I can set you up on Twitter.” He said, “You have to use special equipment.”
DS: A proxy server?
DS: How does Twitter serve your purposes?
AI: Twitter is better than a blog. It’s
faster. It’s interesting because of the fast communication—the immediate personto-person response. Also, everybody is watching. It becomes like a school, like Buddhist teaching or Zen teaching. There is a sharing of ideas. You know people. The people know me as well as anybody in my family.
DS: :Do you ever feel frustrated by the Twitter limit of 140 characters?
AI: In Chinese, 140 characters is not like 140 characters in English. In Chinese, you can write the whole history of one dynasty in 140 characters. It’s so meaningful for us. It’s very poetic, because one line can jump from one subject to another and sometimes it’s five subjects mixed together. It is so effective. I have 200,000 followers. If everyone in China could get on Twitter, I would have a minimum of 2 million. Today those who follow me are all technical people or people who are dedicated to the political.
DS: They took down your blog. Why haven’t they stopped you from using Twitter? Even though you have techies helping you and you use a proxy server, it would seem the government, with a reported 50,000 internet police, could intercept your tweets.
AI: They always try to stop it. They cannot do it. It is very difficult. They can shut off one kind of connector, but we build another one.
DS: Was there any warning before your blog disappeared?
AI: In 2009, before June 4, an official asked me, “Can you promise not to write anything?” The government always gets nervous on this date.
DS: That’s the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Sources say 200 to 2,600 people were killed, while the Chinese government claims there were no student fatalities.
AI: Yes. This man was such a high official. I answered, “I never planned to write anything. It doesn’t affect me so much. I have so many everyday happenings to deal with that normally I don’t write about history.” But then I said, “But if you ask me not to write about it, I cannot say yes. I may write something because you ask me not to.” The next day my blog was shut off. Police also came to my mom’s home. My mom called me. I was in the American Embassy because [Representative] Nancy Pelosi was in China. She had changed her tone, because she used to be a human-rights defender. Now she talks about how beautiful China is. I was quite disappointed with her, and I just left. I answered the phone and my mom said, “Weiwei, there are a few police here asking for your address.” I said, “Just wait. I’m coming over.”
I was full of energy and ready to have some kind of fight, because Pelosi had just said how beautiful this nation has become, and I was so mad. At my mom’s house, this guy is very arrogant. He’s undercover. He said, “I just want to know where you live.” I said, “First, show me your badge. Who are you?” That got him, because he didn’t have a badge; he forgot to bring it. I said, “Then just leave. Get out of here. Bring your identification.” He said, “You have no right to ask me for my identification.” Nobody ever does that to them. Once they say, “Police,” everybody is so scared they do whatever the police say. He wouldn’t leave. I said, “Okay, wait.” I dialed 911. I said, “There’s somebody intruding into my home, and I think it’s a robbery or something.” Two police came. They walked in and saw this guy was their boss. It’s embarrassing for them. This new guy said, “Okay, we have to go to the station.” I said, “Show me your badge.” He said, “I don’t have it.” I asked, “How do I know you are police?” They said, “We have uniforms.” I said, “Anybody can have a uniform.” They said, “We have police cars parked outside.” I said, “Who knows if you stole this car?” They went away and came back with badges, and I went to the station. Later they told me in detention, “You’re watching too many Hollywood movies.” I did something ridiculous and stupid, but I had a good time.
DS: Did they officially arrest you?
AI: They interrogated me. It took hours because they’re not very educated. They wrote everything down very slowly, but finally they let me go. They didn’t bring charges. I said, “The next time you come, you should bring handcuffs.” Those were my last words to them. Then they shut down my blog.
DS: What was the public reaction when your blog disappeared?
AI: There was no way to talk about it. There’s no independent press, so you cannot make a story. No one knows.
DS: Might that kind of suppression and repression soften under the leadership of the new president, Xi Jinping, who took over this year?
AI: He gave a speech at the beginning. The main idea was: If you are weak, you will be beaten. I think it’s a very uncivilized rule. It’s like jungle rule. Nothing will change.
DS: As China has opened to the West, what’s the impact of a nondemocratic system in which the Communist Party selects its leaders from within?
AI: The way to survive in this party is to hide yourself or to become a person who obeys orders from above. These are not people with new ideas who are bold. One generation chooses the next, and one is worse than the former. It’s like inbreeding. After so many generations, it becomes weaker and weaker. You can see in the first generation— Chairman Mao’s generation, Castro’s generation—the first revolutionaries are strong characters, maybe crazy but a bit romantic. Idealistic. Now you see nothing. They cannot even remember what
64 their ancestors said.
DS: Along with your Twitter messages, is your art largely a result of frustration with the current political system?
AI: I’m a person who likes to make an argument rather than just give emotion or expression a form and shape in art. I became an artist only because I was oppressed by society. I was born into a very political society. When I was a child, my father told me, as a joke, “You can be a politician.” I was 10 years old. I didn’t understand it, because I already knew that politicians were the enemy, the ones who crushed him. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But now I understand. I can be political. I can say something even though we grew up without true education, memorizing Chairman Mao’s slogans. I memorized hundreds of them. I can still sing his songs, recite his poetry. Every morning at school we stood in front of his image, memorizing one of his sentences telling what we should do today to make ourselves a better person.
DS: What’s an example of a sentence you learned?
“The moment I saw New York City, I was so happy. Never in my life did I imagine it could be like that. When I grew up, there was no energy, no electricity.”
AI: “Today I want to be a servant of the
people, so I want to clean up my neighbor’s street front,” or “Really study hard to become a useful person to society to prepare myself to fight against capitalism,” or “Build yourself as a strong person for the bright Communist future.” Every day we repeated those sentences. In the evening we stood in front of Mao to confess what we did wrong. “Today at school I had slightly selfish thinking.” It’s called self-criticism. For meals, I went to the commune dorm, to the cafeteria. When you give the empty bowl to the cook, before they give you the food— normally just one spoonful of one food, boiled corn or something—you say one sentence of Chairman Mao. The cook will say another sentence, then give you food.
While you’re a child, you have to automatically follow this. You don’t know enough to question anything, because your knowledge is so limited. You don’t even know there’s another way. You have never read a single novel, poetry or other writing or heard a song that is different. It’s like North Korea today. So there’s no way you can question it. My father could question it because he had some experience in Paris. But of course he could not say anything about it. So when my father said I should be a politician, he was saying I should be something different. Because of my father’s experience, I experienced the complete story of what a nation or human society without justice or fairness can be. If I talk about my youth, that deeply affected me—the society lacking essential right or wrong or justice.
DS: Did your father encourage you to question Chairman Mao’s teachings?
AI: No, if he said something to me, he’d be putting me in danger, because I may react differently and then be crushed. He would never say anything to us. But we talked about that life later. I hated society when I was 17, 18, 19. I wanted to escape. Only art created some way to express something different. I had a kind of corner. First I got into art because I wanted to escape the politics. It’s through certain kinds of acts that you can fully express your feelings.
DS: When your father was incarcerated in the labor camp, what happened to your mother?
AI: Our whole family was sent there. It was a difficult time.
DS: What do you remember?
AI: I remember a lot. My father tried to commit suicide every time they put him in more difficult situations. I remember in the hard-labor camp he called me after his work one day. Our home had no light. It got dark very early. After work, he just laid down on the bed. He had never really done physical work before he was 58. After a day of heavy work, he was exhausted, in pain. He thinks he’s going to die. He called me to the bed and said, “I’m going to die very soon.” He wrote down two names. He said, “After I die, you should go to see these two persons and they will raise you.” I was speechless. I didn’t know what to say. I was 10. But I showed no emotions because at that moment I had no emotion; I just accepted it.
DS: Were you traumatized by experiences like this?
AI: It’s hard to measure that kind of thing.
DS: Why wouldn’t your mother have raised you?
AI: My mother was with my younger brother and they went away. She could not take care of two children, I guess.
DS: Is that why you were sent to New York in 1981? Were they worried and wanted to get you out of China?
AI: I went to New York because I had a girlfriend who went. Her relatives sent her outside to study, and she asked them if they would also help me. By then I was eager to go out.
DS: What was your first impression of the U.S.?
AI: The first time, the plane landed at nine in the evening. Our airplane circled the city. The moment I saw New York City, I was so happy. All the propaganda from the Communists was about how bad and corrupt capitalism is. I saw New York and saw a
river of light, and it was like moving in a dream. Never in my life did I imagine it could be like that. When I grew up, there was no energy, no electricity. I always remember the image of New York.
DS: What did you do in the U.S.? You were 23. How did you earn a living?
AI: I found jobs to make some money. I did housecleaning and repairs. I worked as a gardener and babysitter and whatever kind of job I could find. I was also in an English program for half a year. Then after that I went to my girlfriend’s. She was at the University of California, Berkeley. I went to the Berkeley Adult School to study English.
DS: Were you also making art?
AI: I occasionally did some drawings. Then I went to Parsons the New School for Design one year later in New York to do art.
DS: Some of your art involves performance. Early pieces involved breaking or transforming ancient Chinese antiques. Were you expressing your anger at Chinese culture?
AI: For people from the West, that was quite a shocking act, but for me, it’s quite natural. It goes back to when I was a child and had to burn all my father’s books during the Cultural Revolution. Those books were so beautiful. I burned them all in front of him; we had to. Otherwise it would cost us our lives. I tore every page. Beautifully printed books, art books he brought back from Paris. Page by page. So I know how to destroy. Chairman Mao taught us, so I know.
DS: You’ve created pieces in which you literally say “fuck you” to China—or at least to the Communist Party. In one you flip off Tiananmen Square with the Forbidden City looming in the background.
AI: Yes. That’s so terrible to them that I would do that.
DS: Were you also saying fuck you to the government when you photographed your wife holding her dress up in Tiananmen Square?
AI: For the first few years after I came back to China from New York, I went with her to Tiananmen Square just to walk on the June 4 anniversary. There were so many undercover police, and I told her, “Let me take a photo of you.” We did the Marilyn Monroe pose, just lifting her skirt like that.
DS: More recently you went on a new antigovernment attack, this time in another medium: rock and roll. Have you always been an aspiring rock star?
AI: I’ve never sung a song in my life except the songs forced on us during the Cultural Revolution. I went to the Elton John concert and was very much inspired by his voice as a kind of star penetrating the darkness of the sky. I decided it doesn’t matter that I cannot sing. I am 55 years old, and maybe I’ll be the oldest person to start in rock and roll. I made nine songs. They are about the current condition in China. One is about my confrontation with the police during the earthquake research on the dead students. Another is about Chen Guangcheng and the Great Firewall.
DS: Why did you choose heavy metal?
AI: I love metal music. It’s as powerful as nature. It’s poetry within a storm.
DS: Do you use your art to publicize events like the earthquake or persecution of dissidents, or is it an expression of your frustration and anger?
AI: When there’s an extremely difficult situation, I think it’s a unique opportunity for me to make some art. Something extreme gives me a strong reason to react to it, to respond to the situation. So if they do something extreme, then I’m sure I’m going to come up with something.
DS: Students were murdered and dissenters brutally crushed when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989. That must have reinforced the message that you don’t speak out.
AI: Yes. A few hundred thousand people were there. My father was there.
DS: In a wheelchair, we read.
AI: Yes, and also my mom with steamed dumplings she brought to the students.
DS: What was your reaction to the protests as you watched them from New York?
AI: There was a moment of great excitement. Dan Rather and all those people saw this moment, and we watched and were all very excited. It’s so unbelievable, the whole thing.
DS: Were you in touch with your family during that time?
AI: Yeah, I talked with them. I could hear the helicopters flying above them. At the beginning they were excited. Then they felt shocked. Of course everybody was shattered by such a brutal reaction.
DS: What’s the legacy of the demonstrations? Did they change China?
AI: Maybe most young students don’t even know it happened.
DS: :In Beijing we tried searching the internet for the words June 4, and information about the protest and crackdown appears to be blocked. Do you think the government doesn’t want people to know about the protests because of the massacre it perpetrated or because it doesn’t want people to know it’s possible to organize?
AI: Both. First, government officials don’t want people to know they can unite and have such powerful expression. Also, they don’t want people to know they crushed the masses with tanks. It’s why some people in this country still don’t know they arrested me. Many people don’t know.
DS: How did your April 2011 arrest unfold?
AI: They took me from the airport. A black hood was put over me and they took me to a security detention center. I do not know where. We have tried to find out, but I still don’t know. The first question I asked when they started to talk to me was “Can I have a lawyer?” They said no. I said, “Can I make a phone call to my family?” They said no.
DS: :Were you worried about your family? Your son was two at the time.
AI: I blamed myself. I thought, Why did I put myself in this position, to deal with a government that has no respect at all for human rights, human dignity or even common sense? So many people warned me, and I knew my condition was quite fragile.
They told me I would be sentenced for a very long time. They told me quite clearly, “When you leave jail your son will probably be 14, 15 and will never recognize you. And your mom may be passed away already.” I was very sad to think about that.
DS: When you became a father, did you think differently about your political activism? If you remained imprisoned, your son would grow up without a father.
AI: I didn’t think about that until I was arrested. When I was arrested, when they told me I could not make any phone calls for at least half a year, I felt very sorry.
DS: How else has being a father changed you?
AI: You have someone who very much depends on you. And for another 30 years, you could be some kind of influence on this child. You discover how the human species doesn’t have to learn, that something is already there, and how it struggles to grow. It’s kind of a miracle to see. Quite gradually it has to build up a kind of logical way of behaving, how to deal with life, which is sad in some ways. But yes, I felt very sorry about him when I was arrested and could not even call.
DS: What were the conditions of your imprisonment?
AI: Two guards stood over me every minute. It’s a tough situation. I think it was a kind of psychological warfare. You are watched every moment, even while you sleep, and when you sleep your hands have to be outside the blanket. You cannot turn.
DS: Why would they care how you slept?
AI: I think it’s a punishment.
DS: How do they prevent you from turning?
AI: If you turn, they order you. You have to sleep like this, like a cross. [holds his arms out] The camera has to see your arms. You don’t know how to respond to this kind of degradation.
DS: Could you exercise?
AI: No, no. You can’t move near the door.
DS: Did you become depressed?
AI: I think I was more than depressed. You’re alert because the situation is so unknown. You don’t know their intentions. And you don’t know what the future is.
DS: Could you write or draw?
AI: I could not do anything. When I was sitting, I had to sit in one position, like this. [sits erect with hands on thighs] Before you make any move, you must report it to a soldier. If you need to scratch your head, you must ask. You must ask if want to go to the table to have a sip of water.
DS: Did they bring meals to your cell, or did you eat in a communal area?
AI: They brought the meals to me. The meal would never come with chopsticks. I had one plastic spoon.
DS: Did they prohibit chopsticks because they could be a weapon? Were they worried you might try to harm yourself?
AI: Yes. In my morning food there was always an egg. The egg had no shell. After a while I realized there was a little bit missing from the egg. Why was there always like a little mouse bite missing from the egg? When we became familiar, I asked a guard about this. He said, “We leave a sample of every dish you get in a box.” Later, if something happened to me, they could examine it in the laboratory. A doctor came three times a day. Sometimes seven times a day.
DS: Did you become hopeless?
AI: I felt I would never be released.
DS: Were you ever officially charged?
AI: They announced different crimes— taxes, violation of exchange of foreign currency to Chinese money. Just excuses. I think they wanted to get the people thinking badly of me. They charged me with having a double marriage, which I never had. I have a son with a girlfriend, but we were never married. They charged me with obscenity for putting nude photos on the internet.
DS: Were the obscenity charges based on the art pieces you made in which you are nude?
AI: They weren’t even art. People always come and want to take photos, so as a kind of joke I said one time, “Okay, let’s take a photo.” I took off my clothes. I jumped. I used this thing, a doll called a grass mud horse, to cover my dick. It’s a joke, really.
DS: A grass mud horse?
AI: It’s a fake thing created for the internet to fight government censorship. You can say caˇonímaˇ, or “grass mud horse,” which isn’t a real animal; it’s internet-made. It’s a fake animal’s name, so you can say it, but it also means “fuck your mother.” You cannot say “fuck your mother” on the internet in China, but you can say this animal’s name. So I made this photograph and someone put it on the internet and people got excited about it. It was for fun, just for some excitement at the moment. You have a combination of meaning there, “grass mud horse” and “fuck your mother.” Saying this to the central government will be the most brutal thing you can say in China; you can be killed for doing that.
There was another photo of me and these four women who came to see me one day. I try to avoid seeing so many people, so I joked, “Okay, we’ll have to take nude photos.” I thought that would scare them away, but everybody agreed and we did it. One of the women is an activist for sex workers who speaks out about AIDS, and others are students. It was a kind of statement.
DS: Does the reaction to the nudes say something about Chinese culture in general compared with Western culture when it comes to sex? Is China more puritanical?
AI: I don’t think so. I think China is an old culture and sex is very developed. It’s just as rich as any old culture. These photos are not about sex. It’s about privacy. Someone put this photo online and called it One Tiger, Eight Breasts. Sounds like a porn title, right?
DS: While you were imprisoned, were you ever harmed physically?
AI: No, just intimidated.
DS: Earlier you’d been hit by a police officer when you went to testify in the trial of Tan Zuoren, the Sichuan writer and activist who had also been investigating the earthquake. He had been accused of inciting the subversion of state power. You were accosted in a hotel and struck on the head by an officer. What exactly happened?
AI: There was a bang on the door, “Open
up. It’s the police!” They locked us up for 11 hours so we couldn’t go to the trial. Tan Zuoren is in jail now, serving a five-year sentence. I was going to court to support him. I brought my materials to show he was innocent.
DS: How severe was the blow?
AI: I felt pain and went to the hospital with a friend and two police. I had a regular checkup and nothing was wrong, but later it developed into a hemorrhage. The doctor said if I came to see him any later I’d be dead.
DS: Are there any aftereffects of the hemorrhage?
AI: You hear my way of talking—it’s slow. I can sense it’s slower; the words jump out slower than they should. My memory is very bad now.
DS: After that assault and your arrest at the hands of the state, do you still consider yourself a patriot?
AI: Even though maybe I am, I will never announce myself as a patriot. You’re not entitled to say you’re a patriot if you don’t have a nation.
DS: Don’t you consider China your nation?
AI: No. You have a nation when you share the nation itself, when it holds up your beliefs or you’re identified with it. If a country ignores your right to vote, you’re not a citizen. You cannot make any kind of decision. You cannot relate to other people because you cannot support each other. You cannot share joy because there’s no way to communicate freely. How can you call yourself a citizen? You don’t bear responsibility. Any-
thing that happens is not because of you; it’s because of the government. The nation is not the people; it’s the party. It represents only the party’s ideas. The party controls the army. It controls the judicial system. It controls the natural resources. It’s a group of elites, maybe 500 families, maybe fewer.
DS: Finally, when you were released from prison, were you again hooded so you wouldn’t know where you were?
AI: Yes, everything was the same. Two police sat on two sides and one military soldier in the front. They brought me to a local police station and there I met my mom and my wife. My mom had to sign a paper to guarantee my release for one year of probation.
DS: What are considered violations of your parole?
AI: Before I was released I had to sign an agreement with about nine different principles, including that I cannot go on the internet, cannot talk about what happened inside the detention center, cannot talk to journalists, cannot meet with people who are activists, cannot write articles.
DS: It seems you’ve ignored every one.
AI: Basically yes. First I tried to do less. They have said, “We can always arrest you again and we don’t ever have to release you.”
DS: Doesn’t that warning scare you? Are you tempted to cease speaking out?
AI: Of course it scares me. It’s not a joke. But I cannot gradually let my life deteriorate without talking about what’s on my mind. That’s not possible. I will not stop.