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Chinese Artist Wu Yuren on Life Under Surveillance

We met artist and activist Wu Yuren to discuss the police beatings, false imprisonment, and regular surveillance he has received at the hands of the People's Republic.

by Arvind Dilawar
Jun 15 2015, 4:00am

Wu Yuren next to his installation, 'A Sentence No. 4' (2015). Courtesy of Klein Sun Gallery

Days before Chinese New Year in January 2014, Wu Yuren stumbled upon a post on the social-media network WeChat that read: "If you post this, the government will come and grab you." Curious, he decided to share it. Four hours later, Wu says he received a call inviting him to a cup of tea. It was the middle of the night in Beijing, but he couldn't decline. He already knew the routine: get the call, meet for tea, answer a few questions, and go on with your life. But before he could reach the appointed teahouse, Wu says he was confronted by eight men, four of whom were police officers. They grabbed him, tossed him into a van, and escorted him to a police station, where he wasn't interrogated so much as threatened.

"The New Year is coming up," Wu remembers one of the officers saying, "and you're going to be here. We're not going to let you go home."

"Actually," Wu replied, "I'm cool with that. I haven't prepared at all for [the New Year's celebration]. I'm really behind schedule. This is a great excuse."

They released him 30 minutes later.

Wu Yuren. 'Heritage No. 1' (2015). Courtesy of Klein Sun Gallery

As Wu's bravado suggests, the Changzhou native and Beijing resident is no stranger to dealing with the Chinese authorities. In February 2010, he was part of a very public protest against the demolition of artists' homes and studios in the capital city. After being attacked by one hundred or so masked men armed with iron rods, which the artists claim were sent by a developer seeking to evict them, the protesters gathered on Chang'an Avenue, a storied thoroughfare that, amongst other pivotal roles, was the site of the unknown protester single-handedly halting a column of tanks during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Wu and his fellow demonstrators, which included the celebrated artist Ai Weiwei, made it only 500 yards before police broke up the march. However, their actions were bold enough to garner international attention and even win compensation for their eviction.

Things did not go so smoothly a few months later, when in May, Wu was arrested at a local police station, where he had accompanied a friend to report a theft. According to the friend, Yang Licai, the police detained both men and confiscated Wu's cellphone. When Yang and Wu protested their detention, the officers' verbal abuse escalated to violence. Several policemen dragged Wu into a separate room, from which Yang heard his screams. Yang was released ten days later, but Wu was held on charges of assaulting the police officers. He wouldn't be freed for 11 months, whereupon he was deemed innocent but still necessary to "keep a close watch on... for future subversive activities."

Wu tells me that final bit in an office at the Klein Sun Gallery, where his first solo exhibition in the United States opened last month. His earlier work was primarily in photography (2001's Imperial Crime featured passport-style photographs of people with UV-sensitive forehead brands of words like "Falun Gong," "defection," and "politics"), performance (2005's Journey to the West involved Wu transporting an imitation torpedo in a horse-drawn carriage through Beijing's central business district), and installation (2005's Surplus Value was a bench made out of concrete and the semen of 35 laborers).

Though Wu's new exhibition, On Parole, is more collector-friendly, the biting political commentary remains: The Heritage series is made up of traditional farming tools eaten away as if by termites and set in cases like artifacts; the A Sentence series is made up of light boxes featuring a phrase originally written in Chinese, then made unintelligible through dingbat fonts. The message, though intentionally obscured, is clear if you look hard enough: The tools that built the People's Republic may have become rotting relics, but don't you dare say anything about it, or else...

Though Wu knows a bit of English, we primarily speak through the gallery's assistant director, Willem Molesworth, who translates our discussion in and out of Mandarin. For an hour and a half we chat, then share cigarettes (his Double Happiness for my Camel Crush). Wu is surprisingly forthright and even funny considering the subject of our conversation is what it's like living in China while being under surveillance for "subversive activities."

Wu Yuren. "A Sentence No. 3" (2015). Courtesy of Klein Sun Gallery

VICE: What has your relationship with the Chinese authorities been like since your arrest?
Wu Yuren: They don't keep such a tight monitoring watch on me as much as they will stop by every now and then for a cup of tea to catch up on life, to see what I'm doing.

That doesn't sound like such a pleasant cup of tea. Is it really just a formality to keep tabs on what you're doing?
Yes, exactly. But it's a very common thing: When you visit artists in China, you always have a cup of tea with them. So the cops just become one of the guests to check in. But yes, absolutely, it is their way of keeping tabs on me.

What I say abroad and domestically in China is the same. They're not going to change me. I'm going to keep saying what I want to say.

Who are you meeting with?
There's usually one person who's always there, but the person next to him is always changing.

Are they from a particular department?
Starting in 2013, it was the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau. Before that, it was the Ministry of State Security. That was much more intense.

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What do they typically ask you?
"What's up?" "What're you up to?" "Doing a lot these days?" That sort of thing.

Has anyone ever been intimidating?
First off, an important distinction: When they come to drink tea, they aren't coming to my studio or my house. I never allow that. I always make sure we meet up for tea somewhere else. I don't want them in my personal space, if possible. And their attitude's gotten better. They know I'm experienced in dealing with them, so they don't give me too much of a hard time. But yeah, occasionally when we're having tea together, they'll say, "You can't meet this person," "You make sure not to do this."

Anything specific?
They restrict my meetings with Ai Weiwei, my good buddy. They don't want us to meet or interact and probably plan bigger things. When Ai Weiwei was trying to raise money for his studio—because the government had levied a malicious fine on him—they didn't let me participate or donate in any way.

Installation view of 'On Parole' (2015) by Wu Yuren. Courtesy of Klein Sun Gallery

How long do you think you're going to be under watch?
For the first year after I was released, they came by for a cup of tea once a week. Now they're only coming by once every three months. So it's getting a little better. In the future, maybe they'll just come by as important dates or events start popping up. I don't know if they'll ever completely stop, but it certainly has become less intense.

Do you suspect that you're under any other surveillance?
No. As far as physical presence goes, it's once every three months to meet for tea. It's not like they're constantly following me, but they do have massive stacks of papers all printed out in regards to my online presence. It's all documented. My Twitter, my WeChat, my Facebook—they follow all that.

Do you feel at ease outside of China? Or do you feel like anything you do abroad will impact you as soon as you get back, so you need to constantly watch what you say?
Self-watch—that's a very Chinese thing, having your own policeman in your head. What I say abroad and domestically in China is the same. They're not going to change me. I'm going to keep saying what I want to say.

The Chinese art community seems to have taken a serious interest in your case. Can the same be said of the general public in China?
The general public have more important things going on in their lives than my story. I'm just an artist. Secondly, there's no freedom of information, so how would they know about it? The only reason the art community knows is because there are things like WeChat, with which you're able to keep close tabs on all of your friends and your friends' friends. That's kind of a phenomenon, and it's limited to the art world.

What does your family think of what's going on?
My parents of course want me to leave the country or to stop criticizing the government. It's something all parents would want. I don't want my own child to live in China, especially under the current circumstances. My parents feel the same exact way. They want me—not to stop making art—but to stop challenging the government or to leave the country to be safe. They don't understand why I challenge the government. People of their generation all say that there's nothing you as an individual can do, so stop trying, it's not worth it.

Why stay in Beijing? Why not go somewhere where you can enjoy more artistic freedom?
Beijing is a really strong source of creativity, and I don't want to leave that. Coming to America and being free actually doesn't mean much to me. That wouldn't be a source of inspiration—it wouldn't make me feel more comfortable. My friends and I also feel like, in the next ten to 20 years, China is going to undergo a massive, rapid change, and there's no way I'm missing out on that opportunity. I'll stay in Beijing as long as I can in order to see that, to wait for that to happen, to be part of it.

What do you think is going to change?
There are a couple of ways I see it happening. One way, the ideal way, would be what happened in Romania, where in two days, all of a sudden, it's a flip: They have a new government. Just throw everyone out of power. It's the fastest. That would be ideal. But I don't think the Chinese populace, the general public, is ready for something like that or willing to have something like that happen, so it would need to be a much larger movement of people, an uprising, a real kind of long-term revolt or revolution. As an artist and someone who is committed to the public well-being, I can't miss out on that. I can't step away from it. I need to participate in that. I need to be a part of that because it's my country. It's my kid who's going to be growing up here. There are future generations I have a responsibility to.

Wu Yuren's latest exhibit, On Parole, is on view at the Klein Sun Gallery in New York City through June 27, 2015.

Arvind Dilawar is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Newsweek, the Guardian, the Atlantic, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter or email him at arvind.dilawar@gmail.com.