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The Art of Dissent: A Chat with Ai Weiwei

Interview by Paul Mooney

[Read the full interview in our forthcoming fall issue, Democracy]


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 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’s work 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. But 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.


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.



Paul Mooney is a Beijing-based freelance journalist.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr]

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