“I am afraid of jail”
After the uproar comes the silence. The reaction to Ai Weiwei’s sudden release from Chinese state custody was alarmingly muted. After a cacophony of cries by his peers and the Western press calling for his release throughout spring and early summer, his appearance back at his Beijing studio, following a simple tweet of “I’m out!” seemed to deflate expectations. Instead of the triumphant scenes Hollywood has led us to expect – our hero emerging unbowed and as angry and outspoken as ever – we got a more honest account of what happens when you speak out against a superpower.
Ai looked tired and gaunt, and had lost a considerable amount of his hefty weight. Rumours circulated that the controversial artist had been slapped with some sort of gagging order. “Please understand,” he said elliptically as he retreated behind the blue doors of his FAKE studio, where he both lives and works. Behind those same doors three months before – where I was the last journalist to interview Ai Weiwei before his arrest – I had found a very different man.
“For the past 60 years, any intellectual who holds a different opinion to the government has been punished, jailed or killed”
Following a series of secret communications with Ai’s staff, I had arrived in Beijing on 5th March, less than a month before his arrest. The capital, at that time, was swarming with an intimidating police presence comprising hordes of leather-jacketed patrolmen and hard-faced undercover agents (equally conspicuously dressed) there to oversee the annual National People’s Congress, where the Chinese government would set out its twelfth five-year plan at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square.
But there was also another reason for this overwhelming show of force on the streets. The success of the Arab Spring uprisings in February had filtered into the hearts and minds of many Beijing students, and was now threatening to trigger China’s own so-called Jasmine Revolution. Rather than taking to the streets, however, young, disenfranchised Chinese citizens were congregating online, seeking assurances from one another that a genuine, physical “revolution” could be possible. The Beijing Politburo, which was in the process of handing over power to a new, hardline breed of successors in 2012, noted the sign of the times and instantly cracked down on this social networking movement.
More than 100 ringleaders were arrested, lawyers were dragged in for questioning, lecturers were severely warned not to incite their students, the word “jasmine” was flagged, then banned, by the internet thought police, and any suspicious “street activity” (say, a gathering of more than 35 young people milling about a street corner) was instantly targeted by convoys of police vans. The air was thick with fear, suspicion and paranoia.
It was in this atmosphere that I met with Ai Weiwei. Naturally, the artist’s studio was under 24-hour surveillance. “Sometimes it’s one car, sometimes it’s three cars,” Ai said, followed by a knowing nod: “Undercover police.” But what of his safety? “My safety is actually okay,” he said. “I think if you watch the secret police you are especially okay. They will make sure nothing happens to you. But they are still trying to remind you that everything is under their control.” The artist was certainly right in this respect. I was photographed both arriving and departing the studio, and in all probability was followed back to my hotel prior to my swift departure from the city.
The interview, against my expectations, went spectacularly well. Ai was in fighting spirit, and the immense personal bravery of the man (which I can attest is genuine and far from opportunist) manifested itself in a blistering attack on the People’s Republic of China’s hatred of its own people. “It’s so much like Chinese parents from the olden times, where the children just had to listen to them without showing any sign of disagreement, or questioning, or different attitudes,” he said. “To try and challenge the economic and political situation today is not going to be okay. That is going to be devastating. This nation has had no creativity for the past 100 years.”
Ai’s movements, bank accounts, computers and phones were certainly being monitored at the time of the interview, yet he did not hold back his feelings: “For the past 60 years, any intellectual who holds a different opinion to the government has been punished, jailed or killed. The government wants to crush the concept of freedom forever. China is a totalitarian society that cannot create the simple joy of the people.”
I asked about the absurdity of a situation just days before our interview, when a Beijing student was arrested downtown for placing a “white-coloured” flower on the ground. “It’s absurd for you, but not so absurd for us,” said Ai, “because you can be sentenced here for putting up tweets. The internet is designed as a space for discussion, for different opinions, and how can a government after 60 years in control be unable to take even a small slight? They can’t take opinions. They can’t take different viewpoints. Internet users really look up to me. They say, ‘This guy is established and has possibilities but he is standing for me in criticising the current situation and wants it changed.’ So my position gives a lot of people hope through this impenetrable darkness. People have been sick of the situation, some for several generations, and have developed a total hopelessness. Yet if people say ‘this is not possible’, then that encourages me, because it is in my character.”
These were not mere lofty-sounding words. In previous months, Ai’s personal and public life had become a catalogue of outrageously dramatic episodes. His new Shanghai studio was bulldozed to the ground on the very day of its completion; he had been detained under house arrest, eventually resulting in an open letter from David Cameron to Beijing; and he had been prevented from leaving the country under the suspicion that he would attend his personal hero Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo (ϖ DG#1, Thorbjørn Jagland on the Nobel Peace Prize). Liu, of course, is currently serving 11 years’ imprisonment for political dissidence. Neither his family nor his legal team has any knowledge of the writer’s whereabouts, and nobody is aware of the conditions in which he is being held.
“The Communist Party has to have an enemy. They have to create you as their enemy in order for them to continue their existence”
Ai, visibly angered by the “secretive” sentencing of Liu away from public view, and in words that now sound painfully prophetic, said the following: “Even his wife cannot see him! You do not sentence the one person, you sentence the whole family. He has totally disappeared. All the lawyers cannot see him. Nobody can see him. I mean, come on! If you are so right, if you think justice has been served
then you have to do it correctly; you cannot do it secretly. This is not the time to do that. Sentence him, yes. In front of the people in open court, fine. But not secretly!”
Soon the subject fell to his own semi-imminent arrest and jail. “I am afraid of jail,” he told me, “but my father was a poet [Ai Qing]… and I admire him when in his early twenties he was sentenced to six years, and then later exiled for 20 years in really the worst situation, and yet he survived.” The subtext was clear. Ai knew that jail, arrest or even disappearance was close to becoming a reality for him, just as it was for his poet father. “This is how I try to make myself understand what would happen in jail,” said Ai. “But nobody really knows what happens in the real jail.”
When the interview was over, and after I had safely returned to Hong Kong, I began to discuss Ai’s comments with a selection of China correspondents for Western newspapers. All agreed: Ai was sailing consciously and perilously close to the political wind. “He’s going to make it happen,” said one Beijing-based journalist who works for a British broadsheet. “He’s willing the authorities into arresting him.”
On 3rd April Ai Weiwei went to board a plane at Beijing airport and instead vanished into police custody. The hardliners had got their man. Initially, the Western media believed his incarceration would be a short-lived ruse and that the artist would be released with a light smack on the wrist. But anyone involved in media in China knew otherwise. Ten days passed. Then 20. Then 30.
Suddenly we were informed that he was not being investigated for his criticism of the Communist Party, but for the vaguely phrased “economic crimes” and the frankly hilarious “plagiarism” and “bigamy”. When the thirty-seventh day passed (the Chinese law states that a person must be formally charged no later than 37 days after detention) and no more official news was announced, a fresh wave of public outcry was heard again in the West.
The Chinese government, annoyed by this ongoing Western campaign, told the media to mind its own business, calling the matter an “internal concern”. We don’t meddle in your laws, ran the underlying subtext, so don’t meddle in ours.
‘Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn’, 1995, by Ai Weiwei
The Chinese media, and especially the national news agency Xinhua, were far worse. Once admiring supporters of Ai’s works (especially his 2010 sunflower exhibition at Tate Modern), they now became directly complicit in his deepening incarceration. He was called a traitor, a puppet of the West and a criminal to his own people. Yet Ai had always known they would obey their Beijing masters. “To call Chinese journalists whores would be to degrade sex workers,” he once said. “To call them beasts of burden would humiliate the animal kingdom.”
Whether the authorities were aware or not, the arrest of Ai Weiwei turned a partially well-known Chinese artist into a world figure. At the end of my interview, Ai told me: “The Communist Party has to have an enemy. They have to create you as their enemy in order for them to continue their existence.” Well, the CCP has now found its cultural enemy. In some respects, Ai had succeeded Liu Xiaobo in becoming the most controversial living Chinese citizen, and his name, which was always linked with iconoclasm and political criticism, has become synonymous with freedom of speech itself. How ironic that by silencing a critic with a limited audience, China got the world talking about its human rights record.
The Politburo, in short, turned its irritating little superstar into a rebel enemy of global importance. Now that he is free, however, the last laugh may well be the Party’s. It seems the terms of his release include an agreement that he stay in Beijing for a period of one year (effectively under house arrest) and that he cannot speak to the media about his ordeal, or his beliefs. One can hardly believe the Party will back down from severely punishing the artist if he chooses to break this agreement. So the muted response of his release seems understandable. Everyone is waiting for him to cause an almighty stink. At least half-consciously, he had always courted the authorities into daring to arrest him, but now that his jail term is over, his next move will be the most important decision of his life.
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