Ai Weiwei 'Shame on Me'

Part 2: 'Do They Want Me To Leave?'

SPIEGEL: Your microblog on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, was blocked and then reopened again.

Ai: It was reopened under a different name, but immediately we got 50,000 followers, our hardcore fans. Sina Weibo allowed me to stay there for about three days. That's the moment we put our bank account on it. I am sure Sina Weibo knew about it, but nobody wanted to delete it without a very firm order from the top.

SPIEGEL: Has Sina Weibo, the microblogging website tolerated by the state, become the platform for a growing democratic movement in China?

Ai: Only because there is no other market, no alternative. China didn't want to lose the cutting edge of technology. So the idea of having a Sina Weibo was an attempt to compete with Twitter. However, it has no soul -- which is freedom of expression. Nevertheless, I think the government regrets having Sina Weibo, but they cannot shut it down. That would definitely be suicidal.

SPIEGEL: Why do you think the government is now coming up with new threats? Is it revenge for you not being silent after your release?

Ai: I don't know their intentions. I guess they have unfinished business. They are afraid to lose face.

SPIEGEL: Have the past months led you to feel closer to your home country China or has it separated you emotionally from it?

Ai: Well, I see the broad support from the young people. If I walk on the street, if I go to a restaurant, people come to me and say: "Can we take a photo together? Can you give me your autograph?" They would bring their expensive Armani or Prada wallet to sign. Other people who are desperate show me a photo of their dead daughter and ask: Can you support me? I tell them: How can I? Morally, of course, I sympathize with you. But I cannot support you and you cannot support me. This is the condition of this society. We are separated.

SPIEGEL: Is it the government hoping that you will leave China one day?

Ai: I have no idea. What do they want? Do they want me to stay? Do they want me to leave? Do they want me to hang myself? To kill myself? What do they want?

SPIEGEL: I guess they want a silent Ai Weiwei.

Ai: That's for sure. They don't want me to talk.

SPIEGEL: Will you stay in China?

Ai: That's a hard question. But it doesn't matter where I am -- China will stay in me. I don't know how far I can still walk on this road and what is the limit.

SPIEGEL: In which way has the experience of the past months changed your art or your definition of art?

Ai: My definition of art has always been the same. It is about freedom of expression, a new way of communication. It is never about exhibiting in museums or about hanging it on the wall. Art should live in the heart of the people. Ordinary people should have the same ability to understand art as anybody else. I don't think art is elite or mysterious. I don't think anybody can separate art from politics. The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention. I definitely know people who are shameless enough to give up basic values. I see this kind of art, and when I see it I feel ashamed. In China they treat art as some form of decoration, a self-indulgence. It is pretending to be art. It looks like art. It sells like art. But it is really a piece of shit.

SPIEGEL: Human rights organizations are viewing the way the regime dealt with you and activists this spring as the harshest repression seen in years. Still, if you look at the past 15 years, do you see any progress in China's civil society?

Ai: There is a lot. Because of the technology, again. Because China partially wants to become part of the world. By hosting the Olympics and the Expo, they made a big effort to tell people: Look, we are the same. They want to be accepted by the international community. But they would never recognize the Western values of freedom of speech and an independent judicial system. However, the younger generation has become rich, they have to face the challenge of competition, so they accept a lot from the West. And China has become much more reasonable than before. They detained me for 81 days, but they never killed me. They clearly told me: "If we were in the Cultural Revolution, you would have been killed 100 times." They said: "We have already improved." I said: "I thank you very much. Yes, you have improved. Not because you are really willing to improve yourself, but only because improvement is a matter of surviving."

SPIEGEL: Do you think people in China are more self-confident now?

Ai: Oh yes, they are fighting for their rights before they even know that they are fighting for their rights. They have never been educated to defend their rights. But if their mom in the hospital has to wait for a long time to be treated, if their children have kidney stones because of the milk powder, if their children die in a collapsed school building during an earthquake, if their houses are forcibly demolished, then they start to speak out.

SPIEGEL: Apart from you as an artist, is there a special group in China which is on the frontline of fighting for human rights?

Ai: There are two groups. First, it's the lawyers because they have to make a living by dealing with cases. There are just a few lawyers who are willing to stand up and say: Hey, this is too much. You are abusing power. Liu Xiaoyuan is one of them. The police told him while I was arrested: You cannot speak for Ai Weiwei. Today he has no lawyer's license. He was threatened; they took off his clothes and kicked him. They insulted him. They clearly told him: We want your family to suffer; we want your family to be broken. It doesn't matter how strong Liu Xiaoyuan is -- how can he bear this? They have done this to a lot of lawyers: They beat them, scare them, follow them. But if civil society has nobody who protects the law, then what kind of society is that?

SPIEGEL: And the second group?

Ai: Yes, that's very funny: the IT people who have made such an effort to know and understand computer technology. They are frustrated that you cannot use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in China. They are the first to recognize that the situation is terrible. It is not the so-called intellectuals who stand up. Artists are the worst. They are selfish, self-centred; they don't care what happens.

SPIEGEL: It is not only the critics, but also the relatives of dissidents who suffer a lot. Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo, is under house arrest. How are your mother and your wife doing?

Ai: They suffer so much. My mother became much older when I came out (ed's note: of detention). She had problems with her hearing and high blood pressure. But they still support me. When you make somebody disappear and you don't announce it to the family, what is this? You make people desperate and bring them close to death. If our cat or dog is lost, it makes us desperately want to know where it is -- so for humans disappearing, you can barely imagine the pain. What kind of society is this? If a society cannot even support somebody like me, then people ask: Who is under protection then? That's why there is such support for me. It is not because I am so beautiful or I am so charming. People feel: This guy is fighting for us.

SPIEGEL: Are there special moments during the day where the memories of your time in jail come back?

Ai: Every second. This is something you can never erase. It leaves a scar on you.

SPIEGEL: If you were asked to express your experience in jail in an artwork, what would you create?

Ai: Nothing. Jail is about nothing. Completely blank.

SPIEGEL: How do you release your rage and anger? How do you deal with it?

Ai: Life is art. Art is life. I never separate it. I don't feel that much anger. I equally have a lot of joy.

SPIEGEL: Where does that joy come from?

Ai: I see the rain. I see the leaves come down.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Ai, we thank you very much.

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