Ai Weiwei Refuses to Live in Fear (Updated)

Writing at The Guardian, Ai Weiwei reflects on his 81-day detention, which ended a year ago today.

I often ask myself if I am afraid of being detained again. My inner voice says I am not. I love freedom, like anybody; maybe more than most people. But it is such a tragedy if you live your life in fear. That’s worse than actually losing your freedom.

[…] Reflect on Bo Xilai’s case, Chen Guangcheng’s and mine. We are three very different examples: you can be a high party member or a humble fighter for rights or a recognised artist. The situations are completely different but we all have one thing in common: none of us have been dealt with through fair play, open trials and open discussion. China has not established the rule of law and if there is a power above the law there is no social justice. Everybody can be subjected to harm.

I’m just a citizen: my life is equal in value to any other. But I’m thankful that when I lost my freedom so many people shared feelings and put such touching effort into helping me. It gives me hope: Stupidity can win for a moment, but it can never really succeed because the nature of humans is to seek freedom. They can delay that freedom but they can’t stop it.

Ai’s one year probation has now been lifted, according to Edward Wong at The New York Times:

“They told me they had lifted the probation because I had behaved well all year,” he said in a telephone interview as he was dining at a restaurant in Beijing’s Sanlitun neighborhood. “It really surprised me because I violated almost every rule they imposed.”

Before Mr. Ai was released from detention last year, the police said he had to refrain from talking to foreign journalists and could not use Twitter. But Mr. Ai regularly talks to journalists and uses Twitter daily.

Mr. Ai said the police did not give him back his passport. “You don’t need it,” Mr. Ai quoted one officer as saying. The officer then said that on Monday the police would return the passport and computer equipment they had seized.

Despite the promised return of his passport, Ai has been told that he still may not leave China as he may face charges of pornography, bigamy and illicit exchange of foreign currency, as Reuters’ Sui-Lee Wee explains. The pornography charges revolve around images, posted online “as a joke”, of Ai posing naked with a group of women. When the threat of prosecution first emerged late last year, supporters posted a barrage of nude photos online, while the original images sparked further controversy by tripping Facebook’s nudity alarms.

“We never even touched each other,” Ai said. “It’s nothing. Nobody will say that’s pornography. I asked them why this is pornography. They said under our policy, if there’s nudity, if people try to open a file many times, like over 1,000 times, that’s pornography. They have a law like that, which is ridiculous.”

Ai, who is married, also denies the charge of bigamy. He openly meets a girlfriend and has a three-year-old son from that relationship.

On the possible charge of “illicit exchange of foreign currency”, Ai said police told him that it concerned a project in 2008, when he invited 100 foreign architects to Inner Mongolia and arranged for a Swiss gallery to pay them in euros, while he got yuan currency in return.

Last July, Ai accepted a visiting lecturer post at the Berlin University of Arts, even knowing that once outside China, he might be unable to return. The continued bar on international travel will postpone this still further, but Ai may in any case now be less inclined to take the attendant risk. He told The Telegraph‘s Malcolm Moore recently that “’it has never been important to stay, until now …. When I went to New York in 1981, I vowed never to come back.’ But he has now become so emotionally involved, and has such faith in the twin powers of the internet and globalisation to change China, that he cannot bring himself to leave.”

The expiration of Ai’s probation coincided with a hearing in his lawsuit against local tax authorities, whose case against him, he claims, was riddled with procedural irregularities. Ai was prevented from attending the hearing. His legal advisor Liu Xiaoyuan went missing, and was then forced to leave Beijing; potential supporters were placed under watch and, in Hu Jia’s case, reportedly beaten; posts about Ai including some memorable photos of him posing in a police uniform were removed from Sina Weibo; and in the courtroom itself, his lawyers were prevented from giving evidence, while all public seating was filled with paid attendees to keep supporters out. From NPR’s Louisa Lim:

On Wednesday, a Beijing court heard Ai’s challenge to tax authorities demanding almost $2.5 million in back taxes. Ai was ordered to stay home, so he missed the eight-hour-long hearing. He said the court did not allow his lawyers to read the existing evidence, submit new evidence or call witnesses. Ai noted the irony of a public hearing in which the defendant wasn’t allowed to attend and the public seats — all five of them — were occupied by people paid to be there.

“Those five seats they assigned to their own people,” he said. “After three hours, these five people, they completely have no interest in case. They ask can they leave, ‘We didn’t know it would last for so long.’ And the court tells them that no, you cannot leave, you have to stay here until the case finishes and we’ll pay extra money for it. So they just take a nap in the court.”

So far, there has been no verdict from the hearing.

Update: Ai gave CNN a pessimistic and disheartened interview on his legal battle:

“I feel very sad, very miserable, actually,” he said in an interview Friday with CNN at his studio in Beijing.

[…] He said more than forty police cars and hundreds of officers surrounded his home. “You just cannot go, if you try, you cannot make it,” he claimed the police told him. Public buses were also prevented from stopping in the area of the court,” he added.

“They use the tax case to crush me but they don’t want me to show up because…all facts can be revealed.” Ai likened the court proceedings to a “very bad play” and said he was feeling “very discouraged” and “powerless.”

“The outcome is very clear. The court works for the police; the tax bureau also works for the police; the police is becoming a superpower in China…And they decide everything because we have a policy: it’s called ‘maintain stability’…But what is stability? Is it stability of the nation? Or of the people? Or stability of the controller?”

In another interview for the BBC, Ai also expressed his disappointment at the extension of the ban on international travel:

“My feelings are very mixed,” he said. “They told me I cannot leave the nation. I asked them for how long and they said: ‘We cannot answer you’. It seems very disappointing.”

The artist said he would like to go to both the UK and the US later in the year for work, but did not know whether it would be possible.

“It comes as a surprise they will not let me travel, because you cannot give somebody freedom and say there are strings attached,” he said.

While the inability to travel abroad for his work is clearly a source of frustration, Reuters’ Mike Collett-White writes that the overall effects of the government’s restrictions on Ai’s career are somewhat mixed. On one hand, his absence increases his allure among Western collectors; on the other, political sensitivities appear to have dampened enthusiasm among the Chinese collectors who have driven up other artists’ prices.

There is little doubt Ai’s outspoken views and subsequent travails have placed him at the “high table” of contemporary art in the West, although many of his works are not overtly political and their conceptual nature limits their market value.

“In terms of his impact, it makes him an even more important artist,” said Anders Petterson, head of ArtTactic which analyses trends in the art market, commenting on the latest headlines.

[…] While significant, Ai’s commercial value pales in comparison to other Chinese contemporary artists, and prices for his works have not skyrocketed in the same way. Before this year, his auction record stood at $657,000 for “Chandelier” set in 2007.

By comparison, the contemporary Chinese auction high is held by Zhang Xiaogang, whose “Forever Lasting Love” sold for just over $10 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in April 2011.