【 New Statesman 】   Post Date: 10/17/2012
Ai Weiwei: “If someone is not free, I am not free”
The Chinese authorities have tried to erase Ai Weiwei’s identity from the internet. In revenge, he has made himself into an icon of subversion.
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Ai Weiwei inside his compound in Beijing. Photograph: Getty Images
Ai Weiwei doesn’t usually dream. At least, he doesn’t remember his dreams, or if he does they are deflatingly banal. Last night, for example, he says he dreamed he was hungry and feasting on cucumbers, but in his eagerness bit his tongue and woke himself up – “Ow!”. His unconscious imaginings haven’t always been so prosaic. When Ai was detained at Beijing Capital Airport last year and held in a secret police cell for 81 days from 3 April to 22 June, he “started to have dreams like Hollywood movies. So dramatic. I started to realise, our brains have many, many levels of consciousness . . . So I start feeling sorry, maybe all those writers and great artists live in those dreams, but I don’t; I only have them in detention. Once I come out, they disappeared. Really! I become normal again.”
His subconscious might have settled, but Ai’s waking life remains fraught. He is, in the eyes of the Chinese government, a dissident and a threat. After his release from detention, he was placed under house arrest in Beijing and his design company, Fake Cultural Development Ltd, was then given a 15 million yuan (£1.5m) fine for tax evasion. He has spent the past few months with a team of lawyers fighting the fine and on 27 September their second appeal was refused by the court. The process throughout was deplorable. “The company could not place inquiries about the case or defend itself,” he writes in a recent email. “Our side of the story has not been heard in the trials. Not only did the authorities have no respect for the law and violate all the legal procedures as the case proceeded, they failed to provide any hard evidence for the charges they made.”
The course of events was predictable. The police, Ai says, had told him in private that “their aim was to discredit me because I criticised the government publicly”. When he challenged them about why the state couldn’t address his dissidence directly rather than impose the fine, they told him that people in China tended to listen to him and agree with him, and that the fine would more “effectively damage my reputation and popularity”.
If this was the aim, their strategy has had limited success: when the fine was first announced Ai’s supporters hurled banknotes over the wall into his Beijing studio. As the case went on, his team published legal documents on the internet to demonstrate the lack of transparency in the process. Few could access or read the documents behind the Chinese internet’s “Great Firewall”, but within ten days Ai had raised nearly nine million yuan from 30,000 lenders. “There’s no doubt we lost the case in court,” he says, “but we won public opinion and moral support.”
The fine is only one front of the government’s attack: though no longer under house arrest, Ai is under constant surveillance, is unable to leave the country and is airbrushed from the Chinese media. If you do an internet search for “Ai Weiwei” while in China, nothing appears. Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible. The tax case had virtually no coverage in the Chinese press. “If I was ever mentioned publicly,” Ai says in his email, “the article would disappear or the related internet account would get shut down.” It is one of the reasons he wanted to guest-edit the New Statesman: here was a chance to tell both his story and those of other Chinese dissidents, not only to a western audience but to his own compatriots (his edition will be published simultaneously in Chinese and distributed digitally in China).
Ai might be celebrated in the west and a hero to his fans in China – those who are able to skirt the Great Firewall – but the vast majority of China’s 1.3 billion people, the ones living in the cities you’ve never heard of, in the factory towns making our iPhones and in the remote rural villages with no access to running water, have no idea who he is. And they have no means of finding out.
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