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Chatroom with Ai Weiwei: The Art of Dissent

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From the Fall Democracy issue

A chat with Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei—artist, sculptor, and the brains behind the Bird’s Nest, the signature venue of the Beijing Olympics—was arrested by authorities two years after the final cheers of the XXIX Olympiad. Seized at the Beijing airport, police raided his offices and detained him for 81 days in a secret location. With the artist in solitary confinement unable to contact his lawyer, demonstrators around the world took to the streets, protesting in front of Chinese embassies. His alleged crime was tax evasion, but he says his real offense was standing up to the Chinese Communist Party. Now the world’s most recognizable dissident, Ai Weiwei creates work that often highlights Communist Party abuses, poking fun at the humorless regime. Under constant government surveillance, he installed his own web-cams so anyone could watch him day and night— a subversive call for transparency. A photo outside a government building in Tiananmen Square showing his arm outstretched, his middle finger elevated, has become a generation’s symbol of defiance. Not all of his work can be installed in a gallery. After poorly constructed schools collapsed in a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, he gathered the names of the more than 5,000 students who were killed and published them on his blog. At his Beijing studio, veteran journalist Paul Mooney sits down with Ai Weiwei for World Policy Journal to discuss democracy and dissent in China.

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WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: You’ve used Twitter, your blog, and other forms of social media to get your messages across. How much of a tool can social media be for spreading democracy in China?

AI WEIWEI: Social media is an essential part of a democracy. But in China, we don’t have a structure to connect with social media and to integrate it with social change, because we’re still living in this authoritarian society. The character of this society is that the government refuses communication; it refuses to listen to the public and to understand.    

China needs to develop. It needs to become rich and to be challenged on the international level. Only by doing this can we survive. Deng [Xiaoping] had this policy about 30 years ago, about letting some people get rich first, to cross the river by touching the stones. The idea was that once they could make the nation rich, the Communists could still stay in power. It’s exactly what they’re doing today. They refuse to discuss anything related to ideology, philosophy, morality, or aesthetics. They just try to solve the problem of economic growth. They just want people to join the economic struggle and try to become rich, and not care about their rights, public affairs, and political and social change. That’s what’s caused today’s situation.

After decades of effort they’ve still not made any movement in political reform. The judicial system is completely corrupt. The media acts as if its purpose is to reflect the Party’s propaganda, cover or distort the truth, or avoid any argument in public. So coming back to the Internet and social media, because it’s a technology, because it’s so easy to apply and because there is almost no cost for the individual, there’s a greater chance for the younger generation or for professionals to get the right information and to express their opinions on social matters.

So the Internet and social media have become the only forms of democracy in China.

WPJ: The Chinese leadership calls itself a democratic nation. In your view, what still needs to be done before it can be considered that?

AI WEIWEI: After 60 years of Communist rule, they have to understand, if they’re really trying to establish a new China, that a government has power because it’s effective. And if the leadership does have any responsibility and sincerity, it really has to trust the people. They have to let people decide what is best for them. They must let the people speak freely. They cannot control the media. The voice may not be what they want to hear, but they have to accept that concept because, for too long, they would not let people speak their mind. And they really must have an independent judicial system. They can’t tell people the government is always above the law.

Only by doing all this can the Party gain back legitimacy. People have the right to make a choice and to vote, and their rights should be protected by law. Of course there are other matters. The Army should work for the nation rather than the Party. This has made society unstable. It’s made the Party stable, but society very unstable.

There are also many other problems, of course. They should realize that this nation’s future is more important than the Party, factions, or special interest groups. The nation is much higher than those. But it seems impossible, because the whole machine has been designed the wrong way from the beginning until now. And there is no sign of change. In reality, they have to just throw the old machine away, because there are new products. But in China, we’ve been using the same one for many years and they can’t throw it away because they have no ability to upgrade it.

WPJ: What role can your form of social activism play in moving China toward a democratic system?

AI WEIWEI: In any society, if there is going to be change, it will take individuals, who come from different backgrounds, to show a true concern about the human condition and the rights of people of different groups and the demands of those different groups. So social activism is a natural product of an unjust society. And those individuals, who are devoted to facing this kind of system, must make people aware of the situation and search for possible better ways. Very often that does not happen immediately. But I think they are visionaries, because they believe and trust in humanity. Democracy will happen slowly, but I believe it will happen because that root is in everyone’s heart. Those qualities are so essential and are always connected with happiness and safety, courage, imagination, passion, and action. These are all qualities of life. No nation and people can make that disappear—even under the worst conditions.

WPJ: Do you see a change in attitude among younger Chinese?

AI WEIWEI: When I was released after 81 days of detention, the Party came out with a very strange accusation alleging tax evasion. They threw a 15 million yuan [$2.4 million] tax bill at me. People volunteered to give money to us. Within one week, we received more than 9 million yuan [$1.4 million] from 30,000 young people on the Internet. That was like a miracle. This has never happened before in China. It was like a social movement. People were not surprised by the money but rather by the government trying to crush me, because I reflect my ideology and criticism. But the people just wouldn’t believe the government’s accusation. Many people made money into paper airplanes and threw them over the wall into the yard, and in the morning, we would find a lot of money on the ground. It was just unbelievable. You know, it’s not Chinese people. Chinese people are not very rational but very, very emotional. They trust their own feelings; they can act with passion, and they’re very passionate. Every day young people walk up to me on the street, and they say, “We support you.” The times have really changed.       

The young people under the one child policy are quite independent. They have few relatives, because the family structure was destroyed by the Communist Party. At the same time, the government has created a generation of more independent people not tied down to Confucian ideology. That’s very interesting. The leadership doesn’t even understand. They’ve created a generation that will dig a grave for the Party.

If you look at the latest uprisings in Shifang and Qidong, they all involved people born in the 1990s. They even had a slogan, “We were born in the 90s. Let us sacrifice.” It’s really amazing.

They try to tell us that Western people hate us and forces in Europe and the United States want to keep China down. They say it’s a conspiracy by the West. And they start thinking those who have different opinions or fight for human rights are enemies of the state and are being used by the West. But that theory doesn’t work anymore. People born in the 90s have no connection with what happened in the past. They don’t even know what happened in 1989. And they start making arguments about right and wrong only because of intuition. I don’t think the authorities ever prepared for this kind of uprising.

WPJ: But when we look around China today, we see that many people are living better lives than ever before and that they appear to be quite happy. How do you explain this?

AI WEIWEI: I don’t think anybody is really happy. I have many friends, and they’re all cursing now. They send their wives to give birth in Hong Kong or the United States, send their kids abroad to study, have their cash in foreign bank accounts, and they’re applying to be emigrants. And this is so common, which is shocking, because it means no one trusts this society. Yes, the rich and officials can be glamorous. They can buy luxury goods from the West and can be powerful at work. But they have no trust, because they’re immoral; they’re wrong, and the money they get is only because of the structure, which does not have a good foundation. The problem with this kind of society is that people feel insecure, because they have no belief in the system. They see the political struggle getting more and more extreme and dramatic. All this sends out a signal that the power cannot be held together.

WPJ: You yourself are known widely as an artist, as well as an activist. What role can art play in reforming Chinese politics?

AI WEIWEI: In the old society, people didn’t think that art could be associated with social and political struggle. Art is just for art’s sake. I was born in a very political society. My family and my status have always been linked to political struggle. My father [Ai Qing, a well-known poet and veteran Communist Party member,who was exiled to work on farms in China for defending Ding Ling, another writer] was considered an enemy of the people and the Party. So, I have a natural reaction to what the social and political situation is about, and I always try to use what I learned in art to create a work or a situation that can communicate with the people and can be involved in the real conditions. I think my existence is a proof of how artists can affect the human condition—at least in this short period of time on this piece of land. But I don’t know how far I can go and what it can really lead to. My future is still very uncertain. I’m so sure anyone can play a role, if one has passion and courage, trusts in humanity, has the skills to express oneself, and if one is willing to make a change. Artists certainly are people entitled to do this. And they have always been on the frontier of social movements.

WPJ:  Why haven’t the Chinese people pushed back more and demanded more democracy?

AI WEIWEI: I don’t think the average person wants to demand democracy. Democracy is still a political term. The average person is demanding fairness and justice. In the time of Chairman Mao, people were damaged by political struggles. But today, if you want to live in a contemporary and modern society the first conditions are transparency and citizen involvement.  Participation —only by doing that can you have social responsibility. The Communist Party has never really been used to letting people enjoy social responsibility, rather they just rule by law and control by giving orders. Before, they could use a strong ideology or political movement to achieve control. But today, those old tactics or skills are not going to succeed. The [Party leadership] understands this, and in the propaganda sector, they are completely lost, because no one believes what CCTV or the People’s Daily talk about. People just laugh about it.

So then they created a concept called weiwen, which means to “maintain stability” and which is a very abstract concept that emphasizes that whatever gets in the way will just be destroyed. It could be a different opinion, one line on Twitter, or could be just pasting one line which they consider information that cannot be revealed, such as how many people died in the flooding or in a train accident. All of this can be considered a subversion of state power. So the leadership will start thinking how fragile the state has become once it’s lost the understanding and support of the people. Their legitimacy is under pressure, because they’re so afraid of the people and so afraid of different opinions.

WPJ: In other countries in the Middle East, we see people going out on the street to demonstrate, taking great risks, with many injured or killed. However, we don’t see that here. Are Chinese people too afraid to use such tactics?

AI WEIWEI: Chinese people are easy to control. They can suffer. They’re not the kind of people who fight for social justice. They’d rather have a more peaceful and quiet life and demand much less. Chinese people rarely exercised their right to ask for democracy. In the history of the past 100 years, this only happened twice. Once before 1949, the Chinese used the idea of democracy and the freedom of the press to fight against the Kuomintang, and they won the power and the support of the people. But they won this support not really because of democracy. It was because the government promised the farmers land. It had nothing to do with democracy. The second time was in 1989 when the students protested. But that was crushed by tanks and the military. So in general, control is like an iron curtain. It’s very strong. And they will not allow anybody to even have the most basic forms of a democratic struggle, such as to freely associate with other people and have the right to demonstrate or the right to publish your ideas. If you don’t have those forms there will never be democracy.          

So, 100 years ago, just after the fall of the Qing dynasty, Chinese intellectuals started to talk about the problems of China. They said there are two things that we need. One is Mr. Science and the other is Mr. Democracy. And today, these two guys are still standing outside the door. You know, China is really afraid of both of them. Science means rational thinking and logic and respect for rules and the law. China certainly is completely far from that. China does not play by the rules. There are no rules for the game. And they change the rules according to their favor. Without rational thinking, how can they have a democracy, which  means trusting the people? You give the right to the people to decide their fate. Society has to be ruled by the will of the people rather than by the military or the police.

WPJ: The Arab Spring was seen as a democratic uprising by the people against regimes that were profoundly undemocratic. Given the increasingly widespread use of Twitter, Facebook, and other such means that helped spread the message, what might eventually bring such a movement to China?

AI WEIWEI: All the revolutions, and all the bloodshed, and all that happened in Arab societies took place only because the tyrants in control were very brutal or impossible to have any kind of communication with and refused very essential change. China is still a question mark. We already see the social problems, which are hidden and developing in every aspect. But China’s leadership continues to refuse to have communication and refuses to make political change, which means what happened in the Arab world also can happen here. In some aspects, the Party is ruthless. But everything is changing. Even some people today in the Communist Party are rational. There’s a younger generation—people in the Party, police, and army—a lot of people who have a better understanding of today’s world than before. I’m very confident China will change. No one can stop it. Even Wen Jiabao, our prime minister, has clearly stated many times if the Communist Party is not willing to implement political reforms, then everything they gained in the past decades will disappear or will be wasted. That’s a very clear statement.

WPJ: Has the emphasis placed on Confucian thought inhibited democracy in China?

AI WEIWEI: Confucius has been used for the past 2,000 years by people in power to strengthen social order. The main idea of Confucianism is social order. The officials have to listen to the king; the son has to listen to the father, and the wife has to listen to the husband. That means social order can never be changed. It’s about maintaining stability. I think the Party is behind this because it’s completely lost all spiritual relationship with its own past and with other cultures. They’re trying to use this to hold on. But young people just joke about it.

The emphasis on Confucianism is the last cry of this Party. We are facing a society with no creativity, a society with no imagination, a society that cannot meet the challenges of the international struggle, because they cannot provide a meaningful product that can win the hearts of the younger generation. So they start to use this Confucius as a dead body to prop up the old structure. For us Chinese, the tragedy we have today exists because of Confucianism.

WPJ: Do you think you’ll see real democracy in China in your lifetime?

AI WEIWEI: Oh yeah. I’m part of democracy. Whatever happens in the future, my work will be part of it. So I see clearly how democracy can happen. I think it will happen sooner than most people expect.

WPJ: Is it likely to be a top down event, as in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, or will it come from the people?

AI WEIWEI: In China, it will move from the bottom up. I don’t think the leadership has the ideology or consciousness of democracy. It’s not like the Soviet Union, which had Gorbachev and his generation of people who had a clear understanding of what was going on in the world. Today, the struggle within the Communist Party is more about the power structure than ideology. There’s almost no ideological struggle. We can never see a struggle there. I’m sure there are a lot of smart people in the Party, nice people, but because they’re a product of this system, they are powerless. Their behavior and vision are very limited. It’s a system that can’t accept different opinions. But all wisdom comes from having different opinions.

WPJ: Could you explain the everyday harassment you face as an artist and dissident in China?

AI WEIWEI: I’m closely monitored, watched, and studied. And I’m just a citizen living in these surroundings who has not done anything against the law, so I don’t know what they can do to me. They never gave me a formal notice of arrest when I was detained nor any formal document when I was released. Then I was put on one year’s probation, and then I was set free. They said they have nothing to do with me anymore, but I’m always being tailed and then they kept my passport. I can’t travel. Maybe they want to prove they don’t have to obey the law. That’s really scary. 

WPJ:  Can China be a strong and creative nation with so many restrictions on freedom of expression, with the Internet being censored?

AI WEIWEI: No way, no way. Everyone understands this kind of system and tight control. China will never become the kind of nation that can contribute to the world and civilization and culture. That’s impossible, and we all know it. 

WPJ: What advice would you give Obama or Romney in their dealings with China?

AI WEIWEI: I think Obama has been very soft and hesitant in dealing with China. I think it’s a mistake for whoever deals with an unjust society to hide their opinions, which is not a sign of respect for the Chinese people. It shows a misunderstanding of Chinese humanity. And that’s a wrong judgment. It’s not only because you need a small favor that you’re sacrificing very essential values. That only shows the weakness of the United States today. I hope Obama clearly hears my opinion, because every deal made here happens because the rights of so many people are ignored. You profit at the expense of the people who have been put in jail or who are missing, just because they spoke the truth. Do you enjoy this kind of deal? Are you aware of what’s happening? Or, are American values something that can only be shared by the American people, rather than being appreciated by the world? Or have Americans come to a time in which they can only protect their own interests? I think that’s a sign of weakness.

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[Illustration: Meehyun Nam-Thompson]

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