Ai Weiwei Still Knows How to Piss Off the Chinese Government
On Friday, it was reported that the appeal issued by Ai Weiwei, China’s best known dissident and artist, against his $2 million fine for tax evasion had been rejected. This news comes after he was banned from attending court to even hear the decision. It's terrible news for Ai’s fans and for the man himself, whose future is pretty uncertain right now.
It is of course possible that this whole tax evasion thing the Chinese government are laying on him is basically an excuse to crack down on his outspoken criticism of the Communist party in China. In fact, it’s obvious and you're well within your rights to think: “Well, duh, of course that’s what they’re doing, VICE. Did you really think they were gonna straight up murder him?” Placing him under restrictive bail conditions and telling him not to leave the country has gone some way to quietening the beardy activist.
Ai Weiwei is noted for his love of the internet and it's power to disseminate information and ideas rapidly. Also, a cat.
On August the 10th a film made by Alison Klayman—a friend of Weiwei's—called Never Sorry comes out. Alison followed the artist around for several years from 2008 onwards filming him being interviewed, interviewing him herself and generally trying to get to know the man through a lens. The film ends shortly after Weiwei returns from a shady 81-day disappearance/detention relating to the aforementioned tax evasion charges, last year.
Except apparently it wasn’t about tax at all. Not, at least, according to Alison (or pretty much anyone who isn’t an official member of the Communist Party of China). Ai relayed the conditions and questions of his interrogation to Alison so I thought it would be a good idea to speak to Alison about Ai and about her film. Here is that chat.
VICE: Hi Alison
So, how long did you follow and film Ai?
The whole project took about three years. The last year I was sort of traveling back and forth. Obviously he was detained and no one could see him then, but I did visit him after his detention in 2011.
Have you talked to him a lot about his detention?
Yeah, when I saw him afterwards. He is very, very open to talk about what happened, it’s just that he was unsure of the best way to deal with his bail conditions, so a lot was perhaps not on the record. He was so, and kind of still is, preoccupied with what happened to him and what his response can and should be, creatively and politically, and just what it means, even personally. It’s just turning over and over in his mind. So he would, you know, tell stories of how those 81 days went in terms of interrogation, and how they fed him, and the doctor that would come and check him regularly, which meant they didn’t want anything physically bad to happen to him, but psychologically it was just a total… He was totally worked over. And you can see that on his face in the footage at the end of the film.
Ai Weiwei, in hospital but still flippin' the bird.
It is sad to see. In the film there's quite a startling transition from Ai Weiwei before his detention last year and afterwards. Before he seemed quite upbeat, and everything was very open, almost playful. He’d do every interview, talk to anyone and then suddenly, he seemed to kind of close down. What do you think happened that made him do that?
I think he was protecting his family and in particular his son and his mother. While he lives his life openly, he really wants to guard their privacy. I think he feels like his choice to take on the authorities doesn’t mean that it should involve for example, his mom. One time officers did come to her house, around the same time they turned off his blog, in May of 2009. He was incredibly angry and antagonized by that. He really, I think, is trying to protect them in some way.
The Ai Weiwei we knew over the past few years and that is shown in the film is someone who’s walking a fine line of trying to push boundaries. And he’s very good at it. You’re constantly amazed, like “How are you able to do what you’re doing?” I think he just had good intuition, he had a lot of balls, and he’s very good at figuring out how to do things on the edge but not be over that edge. But right now that line, all those lines, they’ve shifted, they’re unclear. Essentially he’s operating under much more severe and overt stress. His idea and understanding of “When am I crossing a line?” is impossible to know. The one line that they did set for him very clearly was June 22nd, right? The anniversary of his release, they said, "Here are all these conditions on you," all of which he’s pretty much broken already by giving interviews, going back on Twitter, but in a more subdued way than before.
Then that day came and went, they gave him a piece of paper that said the conditions were lifted, but they also said, “We’re not giving you back your passport, you can’t travel, you’re still under investigation for a host of random things,” so again he’s caught in even more uncertainty now. That’s really what we’re seeing—I don’t think his belief in what’s important and what he wants to accomplish or thinks he’s capable of contributing... none of that has changed. But his security in, “I think I can get away with this, or I think I can do this and know what to expect,” all of that has turned upside down.
Do you speak to him regularly still?
Yeah, we communicate most regularly just back and forth on Twitter. We also talk on the phone and text message. We talk on the phone not too frequently, because it’s a little bit strange since it’s all monitored. But I talked to him just a week ago. It’s always nice to check in.
Does what he's said on record about what it was like differ from what he has said off-record?
Essentially, he was in sort of a hotel-type space that they use for these sorts of detentions. The lights were always left on and he was subject to routine interrogations. He always had these two young guards standing on either side of him at all times, so they would switch over in three hour shifts. They would stand there while he was in the bathroom, or while he showered, slept, ate. I mean, for 81 days, that’s a total mindfuck. And everything was more of that nature, there wasn’t beatings or being starved, but it was that kind of thing. Within a week or so of his being taken in, the government finally acknowledged that someone had him, they were still not very specific, they never said where exactly he was. They said that he was being looked at for economic crimes, and he was like, "Boy, from where I was sitting, you wouldn’t have known that was what they were telling the rest of the world," because they didn't question him once about his taxes in 81 days. He was questioned about “Are you fermenting the Jasmine Revolution? And who are your foreign contacts and tell me about these interviews? What you do on Twitter?” You know it was much, much more about his speech than about the things they say it’s about.
Ai Weiwei making art.
Did he lie to them in any way do you think? Or was he honest?
That’s a good question. I don’t know because there were so many different kinds of questions, I couldn’t really purport to know. But I heard him say in other reports that at some point when you’re in that position you’ll just say whatever you can to get out of it. I think I read that somewhere. It wasn’t something he said to me. So, you know, for example the fact that they said he signed a confession and that’s why they released him, I think he was saying that confession wasn’t really worth anything.
Did or does he ever shock you in any way?
Yeah. I was very frequently shocked when I saw him give interviews for example, and he would just say such negative things about the party that you just feel like, "Aren’t you not allowed to say that here?" You should watch his documentary Disturbing the Peace from the night that he was beaten. It’s an hour-long film, you can find it on YouTube. Watching that movie, I’m pretty sure my jaw was open the entire time. After they beat him they sent him back to Beijing, but they kept one of his assistants, a woman. So he flies back the next day with lawyers and confronts them about letting her go, and he’s filming the whole time, and the way he talks to the cops. The fact that it was all filmed, and that you’re sitting watching it, it was just unbelievable. You can’t not be a fan after watching that, especially for a young Chinese citizen, watching that and thinking “Somebody can do that? Somebody DID that?” It’s really mind-blowing.
Disturbing the Peace, by Ai Weiwei.
What do you think he’ll do next? What kind of presence will he have from now on?
Unfortunately, I was hoping that post-June 22nd I’d have a better handle on this, but right now it’s still very much up in the air. He has so many art shows scheduled around the world. He should, in theory, be going to see his new studio in Berlin that he’s working on, and he has a big show in DC in the fall. I know that he’s working on a lot of things and we should expect a lot of things to come out. New works in response to the detention and all these things that have happened to him. But is he going to be able to leave, and are we going to see these things? Is he going to be able to get them out of the country? I think the logistics, what’s going to be possible, is a really big question mark.
Let’s say he does resume significant output again, even from his relatively controlled conditions. What do you think is likely to be the Chinese government’s reaction to him moving forward? Do you think there’ll be another crack down?
It’s so uncertain and I don’t have an answer. I play it out in my mind all the time, and I can come up with so many different scenarios of how it would play out that, all of a sudden, tomorrow, they might give him his passport and say “Leave.” Maybe they say “Leave and we’re not gonna let you back in,” you know? Then what would he do? If we get more international protests and high profile museums and ministries of culture and state, saying "Let Ai Weiwei out!" I dunno what would happen. I just play it out in my head, there’s only educated guesses to be made right now. He doesn’t even know. He has no clue.
Do you think he would live in exile, given the choice?
There might be a scenario down the line where that becomes the option that he chooses, but I don’t think that’s his preference now. But like I said it’s not just up to him, the options available to him and what the government does is going to affect how he responds, too. That’s up to him.
Cheers Alison, thanks for the chat.
Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshuahaddow
Images from Never Sorry, due for release on August 10th.