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Lair of the dragon’s dissident

world Updated: Aug 26, 2012 02:37 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times
Sutirtho Patranobis

“Politics is like air and water. And you know if there is bad politics. Everyone is polluted. Everyone is unhealthy. See the people walking on the street…how they act,” says Ai Weiwei, artist and now the most famous Chinese dissident, leaning back in his chair.

“Art for art’s sake is a political statement. Art is always about aesthetics, about aesthetic values rooted in moral and philosophical judgements. And it cannot avoid politics. All the best art is political.”

And for Ai, democracy is the politics of the people. “Democracy is the answer,” he says when asked about political systems, but adds there is no such thing as a single democratic system which would suit all societies. “That’ll be a problem. There is no standard democracy. But democracy is the most efficient way: people’s way rather than the elite or someone who controls your rights. We are born as individuals. We need to participate, contribute our energy and passion.”

For the past few years, Beijing has been trying to identify what particular form of dissidence Ai represents — and how best to quietly throttle it. Once China’s favourite artist, Ai fell from the Chinese Communist Party’s grace with his critical blogs, investigations into the deaths of children during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and vitriolic attacks on the authoritarian regime.

Ai says that the leaders of the party “truly believe they are privileged.”

“How many Chinese officials send their children to study abroad? To US universities? They don’t believe in their own system. The land under them is not stable.” Ai was arrested by Chinese authorities in April 2011 — as the Arab spring was spreading — and held incommunicado for 81 days. Now he’s back home, but prohibited from travelling abroad, engaging in public speech, and subjected to continuous government surveillance.

“They took [my passport] on April 3, 2011. The authorities are extremely nervous. They are frustrated. The party rises above the law. There is no democracy within the party. The law has become a tool to crush independent thinking. That is why they have to pick up someone like me. I am not a politician, not a fighter. I just ask questions and use my way to present them…this is such a trouble for them.”

Ai and those close to him are under constant watch. Surveillance cameras line the streetlights outside the grey high walls and small gate that surround Ai’s home and studio. The surveillance is not just physical. More than 1,000 words associated with Ai are banned on websites in China — Ai, Weiwei, the fat man, the man with the beard, tax case — they are all banned. “I can never be on Chinese websites,” he says. “Tax case” refers to Beijing’s attempt to muzzle him by charging him with not paying millions of yuan in taxes."

Located in the Caochangdi art district, northeast Beijing, the studio-cum-home space was designed by Ai. Inside, the stone walls of his home and work space are divided by a lush green lawn where white, black and brown cats laze. A glass table and few chairs sit in one corner. No one, not even the burly artist himself, knows how many cats there are. Could be 30, he says.

Earlier, around 8.30 in the morning, Ai, without looking up from his Twitter account, said: “You are early. So, hang around.” On an average, he spends about eight hours on Twitter after waking up, reading the news, and participating in online discussions. About 15 minutes later, Ai put on a light jacket over his t-shirt, walked across the lawn and sat at the table.

“My past few years have been very difficult, extremely restricted. Detention and threat. Harassment and regulations, which really limit my way,” Ai says. His rough brush with the Chinese government began during the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, soon after he was asked to be artistic consultant for the project to design the famous Bird’s Nest stadium.

“It brought back bad memories; the way people were being discriminated against (when Beijing was demolished and rebuilt). Built up like a police state. Regulating people’s freedom and rights to (make them) put up a fake smile. I felt terrible.”

Ai began writing critical blogs. “I researched on the earthquake victims of Sichuan. Wrote a lot of papers on judicial procedures. First gradually, then I got quickly involved (with other issues), he says, adding: “Internet gave me the opportunity to get involved.”

Technology has been the tool to voice his critiques of government. “I am a typical product of internet freedom under authoritarian society,” he says, adding his impact is directly tied to the internet.

“Technology for me is a strong part of the future because it is designed by people. And it helps societies like China with primitive freedom of expression and communication. Flow of information can be the foundation of people to make a choice, make a better judgement. That is the end of authoritarian government. Fighting for freedom of expression is in human nature.”

Technology has meant, despite the restrictions on him, that Ai has been able to reach out to a younger generation.

“I am a free man online. Otherwise, I am followed everywhere, even in the park. As long as they don’t put me in jail or sentence me, I still have a lot of space. Restrictions are much worse now than before but technological possibilities are much stronger than before,” he says.

He points out that things were worse in his father’s generation. His father was the famous Chinese poet Ai Qing who was sent to labour camps during Mao Zedong’s rule. “I myself grew up in sort-of camps near the Pakistan border.”

Ai was unaware five documentaries on him were screened in April at the Clark House in Mumbai under the title ‘Arranging Chairs for Ai Weiwei.’ “I want to learn more about India. I visited the (ongoing exhibition of contemporary Indian art in Beijing) Indian Highway. Fascinating.”

Told that India is a democracy but far behind authoritarian China in development, Ai is dismissive. “Growth cannot be measured in terms of development alone. China is growing but going nowhere.”Lair of the dragon’s dissident

China’s most famous dissident, Ai Weiwei, speaks on democracy, art, India and living under surveillance.

Sutirtho Patranobis
spatranobis@hindustantimes.com

“Politics is like air and water. And you know if there is bad politics. Everyone is polluted. Everyone is unhealthy. See the people walking on the street…how they act,” says Ai Weiwei, artist and now the most famous Chinese dissident, leaning back in his chair.

“Art for art’s sake is a political statement. Art is always about aesthetics, about aesthetic values rooted in moral and philosophical judgements. And it cannot avoid politics. All the best art is political.”

And for Ai, democracy is the politics of the people. “Democracy is the answer,” he says when asked about political systems, but adds there is no such thing as a single democratic system which would suit all societies. “That’ll be a problem. There is no standard democracy. But democracy is the most efficient way: people’s way rather than the elite or someone who controls your rights. We are born as individuals. We need to participate, contribute our energy and passion.”

For the past few years, Beijing has been trying to identify what particular form of dissidence Ai represents — and how best to quietly throttle it. Once China’s favourite artist, Ai fell from the Chinese Communist Party’s grace with his critical blogs, investigations into the deaths of children during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and vitriolic attacks on the authoritarian regime.

Ai says that the leaders of the party “truly believe they are privileged.”

“How many Chinese officials send their children to study abroad? To US universities? They don’t believe in their own system. The land under them is not stable.” Ai was arrested by Chinese authorities in April 2011 — as the Arab spring was spreading — and held incommunicado for 81 days. Now he’s back home, but prohibited from travelling abroad, engaging in public speech, and subjected to continuous government surveillance.

“They took [my passport] on April 3, 2011. The authorities are extremely nervous. They are frustrated. The party rises above the law. There is no democracy within the party. The law has become a tool to crush independent thinking. That is why they have to pick up someone like me. I am not a politician, not a fighter. I just ask questions and use my way to present them…this is such a trouble for them.”

Ai and those close to him are under constant watch. Surveillance cameras line the streetlights outside the grey high walls and small gate that surround Ai’s home and studio. The surveillance is not just physical. More than 1,000 words associated with Ai are banned on websites in China — Ai, Weiwei, the fat man, the man with the beard, tax case — they are all banned. “I can never be on Chinese websites,” he says. “Tax case” refers to Beijing’s attempt to muzzle him by charging him with not paying millions of yuan in taxes."

Located in the Caochangdi art district, northeast Beijing, the studio-cum-home space was designed by Ai. Inside, the stone walls of his home and work space are divided by a lush green lawn where white, black and brown cats laze. A glass table and few chairs sit in one corner. No one, not even the burly artist himself, knows how many cats there are. Could be 30, he says.

Earlier, around 8.30 in the morning, Ai, without looking up from his Twitter account, said: “You are early. So, hang around.” On an average, he spends about eight hours on Twitter after waking up, reading the news, and participating in online discussions. About 15 minutes later, Ai put on a light jacket over his t-shirt, walked across the lawn and sat at the table.

“My past few years have been very difficult, extremely restricted. Detention and threat. Harassment and regulations, which really limit my way,” Ai says. His rough brush with the Chinese government began during the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, soon after he was asked to be artistic consultant for the project to design the famous Bird’s Nest stadium.

“It brought back bad memories; the way people were being discriminated against (when Beijing was demolished and rebuilt). Built up like a police state. Regulating people’s freedom and rights to (make them) put up a fake smile. I felt terrible.”

Ai began writing critical blogs. “I researched on the earthquake victims of Sichuan. Wrote a lot of papers on judicial procedures. First gradually, then I got quickly involved (with other issues), he says, adding: “Internet gave me the opportunity to get involved.”

Technology has been the tool to voice his critiques of government. “I am a typical product of internet freedom under authoritarian society,” he says, adding his impact is directly tied to the internet.

“Technology for me is a strong part of the future because it is designed by people. And it helps societies like China with primitive freedom of expression and communication. Flow of information can be the foundation of people to make a choice, make a better judgement. That is the end of authoritarian government. Fighting for freedom of expression is in human nature.”

Technology has meant, despite the restrictions on him, that Ai has been able to reach out to a younger generation.

“I am a free man online. Otherwise, I am followed everywhere, even in the park. As long as they don’t put me in jail or sentence me, I still have a lot of space. Restrictions are much worse now than before but technological possibilities are much stronger than before,” he says.

He points out that things were worse in his father’s generation. His father was the famous Chinese poet Ai Qing who was sent to labour camps during Mao Zedong’s rule. “I myself grew up in sort-of camps near the Pakistan border.”

Ai was unaware five documentaries on him were screened in April at the Clark House in Mumbai under the title ‘Arranging Chairs for Ai Weiwei.’ “I want to learn more about India. I visited the (ongoing exhibition of contemporary Indian art in Beijing) Indian Highway. Fascinating.”

Told that India is a democracy but far behind authoritarian China in development, Ai is dismissive. "Growth cannot be measured in terms of development alone. China is growing but going nowhere."



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