Beijing’s Olympic legacy doesn’t compare with that of Seoul, whose 1988 Games cajoled the then one-party government to allow direct elections and liberalization. No such defrosting is taking place in Beijing, where plainclothes police are everywhere, including outside the studio of Ai Weiwei.
The bearded, portly Ai was chosen by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Mueron to collaborate on the design of the National Stadium. “The government would never ask me. Never,” he says. Ai’s father was a famous poet exiled to the country’s far west during the Cultural Revolution, and the 51-year-old Ai forged a career as an avant-garde artist who bristled against the state. After the earthquake in Sichuan killed 70,000 people in 2008, Ai began a project on his popular blog that challenged the reported death toll of children, most of whom perished in schools that were allegedly poorly constructed because of shoddy building materials and misappropriated funds. Officials shut the blog down, but not until Ai’s volunteers had posted the names and profiles of more than 5,000 victims.
Ai points across the street to a poplar. “When the road was widened, trees were cut down. One day I found a magpie’s nest sitting on the ground. I was really worried about the unhatched eggs in it, so I carried it inside here and then placed it in that tree. But of course, the mother never returned to the nest. I had ruined it.” The magpie’s nest was not the origin of his stadium design, Ai says, but the story illustrates what followed its completion. “I wasn’t invited to the opening ceremonies, and I wouldn’t have gone,” he says. “I have disassociated myself from every act associated with the state. Look at this city now; the empty new buildings along Qianmen are the latest example of officials and developers shamelessly chasing profit and more profit.”
I fish an official Bird’s Nest key chain from my pocket, one of the hundreds of trinkets branded with his design on sale at the stadium. “I’ve never been inside it,” Ai says. “I love the building. I’m Chinese, after all, and it’s good for China. Maybe young kids can see there is such a thing as graceful design, that it’s O.K. to have dreams, that they can come true.” Ai fingers the key chain and shakes his head. “But for now, my name is permanently associated with the country’s biggest propaganda item.”