Ai Weiwei: "Shame on Me"

After meeting last week’s deadline for a down payment in order to challenge his disputed $2.4 million tax bill, Ai Weiwei sat down with German magazine Der Spiegel to discuss life since detention and his reaction to a new culture of protest in China:

SPIEGEL: Did you underestimate the Chinese people?

Ai: I did. Shame on me. I, and not only me, always thought, in modern history Chinese people are like a dish of sand, never really close together. But today I think a dish of sand is a good metaphor because now we have the Internet. We don’t have to be physically united. You can be an individual and have your own set of values but join others in certain struggles. There is nothing more powerful than that. On the Internet, people do not know each other, they don’t have common leaders, sometimes not even a common political goal. But they come together on certain issues. I think that is a miracle. It never happened in the past. Without the Internet, I would not even be Ai Weiwei today. I would just be an artist somewhere doing my shows.

SPIEGEL: In China, it is quite unusual for people to show their support for critics of the government so openly. Why do you think they are doing so this time?

Ai: Whenever there is injustice, there is tension. But in China it is very hard to release your anger unless you burn yourself or you jump from a bridge. In a society where there is no freedom of the press, it is difficult for victims to be noticed. Just take the example from yesterday: I had given a telephone interview to CNN. Then, suddenly, CNN was shut down for a couple of minutes. It was the first time I experienced that my television went totally dead. I realized: Oh my God, its because of me, this is crazy! Which nation would do that? Maybe Cuba, North Korea, China. But what do they want, what are they so afraid of?

Earlier this week, amid the ongoing tax probe as well as a new investigation into potential pornography charges, Ai also answered questions from readers in an online chat with NBC.

Also today, The Guardian’s Tania Branigan writes that even Ai wonders how long he can 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.’

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.”

Elsewhere, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou visited an exhibition of Ai’s work at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and defended the artist’s right to freedom of expression, saying Ai’s case underscores a glaring difference between Taiwan and the mainland:

Defending his efforts to press China on improving human rights, Ma said he urged the Chinese government to release Ai and Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) in his statement on the 22nd anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4, urging China to respect human rights as a way to promote cross-strait relations.

“The distance between Taiwan and the Mainland depends on the two sides’ views on the protection of human rights. The more similarities we share on the issues of human rights, the closer that distance will become,” Ma said.

In a written statement this year marking the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Ma urged the Chinese authorities to release Liu, Ai and other Chinese dissidents, and called on China to “undertake political reforms and promote the development of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”