TIME sat down with Ai Weiwei, named a runner-up for its 2011 Person of the Year issue, to discuss his detention and the implication of the year’s global social upheaval for China:
Your detention forced you into silence. What was it like?
First they make sure you know that nothing can protect you, no law can protect you. They gave me the example of Liu Shaoqi [the Chinese head of state who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and died in prison in 1969]. The constitution could not protect him, and today not much has changed. Then they said, “We want to dirty your name. We want to smash your popularity. We want to tell people you’re a liar and dishonest.”
So, what would you like to see in China?
We need clear rules to play the game. We need to have respect for the law. If you play a chess game but after two or three moves you can change the rules, how can people play with you? Of course you will win, but after 60 years you will still be a bad player because you never meet anyone who can challenge you. What kind of game is that? Is that interesting? I’m sure the people who put me in jail, they’re so tired. This game is not right, but who is going to say, “Hey, let’s play fairly”?
Second, they cannot stop people from communicating freely, to get information and to express themselves. When they do that, this nation is not a right place to live. They sacrifice generations of people’s opportunities. This is a crime.
In the magazine’s December issue, GQ writer Wyatt Mason recaps Ai Weiwei’s memorable 2011 in the context of his own journey to China in search of “The Danger Artist”:
In late July, I flew to China not knowing what to expect, with one exception: I was sure, regrettably sure, that I wouldn’t be able to speak with the person I needed to speak with, a man named Ai Weiwei. Who he is—and there’s no shame in your not knowing; I was among the unenlightened until recently, too—it was my ambition to comprehend. And if I failed to meet the man himself, I hoped, at least, to see enough of the world he called his own to make sense of a matter of no small interest: why it is that not a few people of discernment now consider him to be one of the most significant artists working today; and why it is that the People’s Republic of China considers Ai Weiwei to be, without question, a very dangerous man.
Day by day, though, in the astonishing heat and unthinkable smog of Beijing’s punitive summer, my investigations took on a hopeless tinge. The more I learned about Ai Weiwei and his world, the more desperate to meet the man himself I became. By the sixth of my ten days in China, in a state close to heatstroke or dehydrated near-collapse, I did something unseemly. I had heard from a friend of Ai’s—family names come first in Chinese—that he liked to go to a particular restaurant for brunch, a place he’d take his little son, who’s 2 1/2, and the boy’s mother, who’s not his wife. If I went there at such and such a time, I stood a good chance of seeing the man.
See also additional CDT coverage of Ai Weiwei.