Photo Gallery: 'The Party Is Walking a High Tightrope'


Interview with Ai Weiwei 'My Virtual Life Has Become My Real Life'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, 56, discusses how the authorities monitor his movements in sometimes bizarre detail and the feud with the government in Beijing that has kept him from being allowed to leave the country for three years now.

SPIEGEL: Chinese fighter jets have been flying over islands in the East China Sea since November, a few weeks ago a Chinese spacecraft landed on the moon -- and now a Chinese helicopter rescued a group of tourists in Antarctica. China is looking pretty strong and powerful these days.

Ai: That only makes it more dangerous. If a master, a wise and experienced man, wields a great weapon, that's beautiful. He can serve peace with it. But if someone's emotions are imbalanced, even if he has the best equipment, he will still mean danger. Modern technology requires calm. You shouldn't trust anyone with a car who has no knowledge about vehicles or roads.

SPIEGEL: So China's political leadership doesn't have its feelings under control?

Ai: The whole system -- not just the political leadership, the military too, the whole power structure, our education system, the whole of society -- is suffering from being cut off from the free flow of information. That's why the country can't face up to open competition -- unless it resorts to measures like North Korea.

SPIEGEL: What's wrong with China's education system? According to the OECD's most recent Pisa study, an international ranking of education systems, students in Shanghai are the world's best in arithmetic, natural sciences and in reading.

Ai: I think our system is hollow and empty. Let's talk about humanity, individualism, imagination and creativity -- those are the values a society is built on. What education are we getting, what dreams do we dream? I deal with students every day -- from China, Germany, the United States, Hong Kong and Taiwan. And I've noticed that the Chinese students are the least trained in having a sense of aesthetics. They lack any ability to sense what is beautiful or what is proper. They can be learned and skillful, but they lack the ability to make their own free judgment. It is really sad to see young adults of 20, 25 years who were never taught to make their own decisions. People who can't do that don't get a sense of responsibility. And if you lack a sense of responsibility, you push the blame onto the system.

SPIEGEL: Why are you put under such manic surveillance? There are more than a dozen cameras around your house.

Ai: There's a unit, I think it's called "Office 608," which follows people with certain categories and degrees of surveillance. I am sure I am in the top one. They don't just tap my telephone, check my computer and install their cameras everywhere -- they're even after me when I'm walking in the park with my son.

SPIEGEL: What do the people who observe you want to find out, what don't they know yet?

Ai: A year ago, I got a bit aggressive and pulled the camera off one of them. I took out the memory card and asked him if he was a police officer. He said "No." Then why are you following me and constantly photographing me? He said, "No, I never did." I said, "OK, go back to your boss and tell him I want to talk to him. And if you keep on following me, then you should be a bit more careful and make sure that I don't notice." I was really curious to see what he had on that memory card.


Ai: I was shocked because he had photographed the restaurant I had eaten in the previous day from all angles: every room, the cash till, the corridor, the entrance from every angle, every table. I asked myself: Gosh, why do they have to go to so much trouble? Then there were photos of my driver, first of him sitting on a park bench, then a portrait from the front, a portrait from the back, his shoes, from the left, from the right, then me again, then my stroller.

SPIEGEL: And he was only one out of several people who follow you?

Ai: Yes. They must have a huge file on me. But when I gave him back the camera, he asked me not to post a photo of his face on the Internet.

SPIEGEL: The person monitoring you asked not to be exposed?

Ai: Yes. He said he had a wife and children, so I fulfilled his wish. Later I went through the photos we had taken years before at the Great Wall -- and there he was again, the same guy. That often happens to me, because I always take so many photos: I keep recognizing my old guards.

SPIEGEL: Is it possible to get used to being watched so closely and permanently?

Ai: The way I do it is very simple: When I counted that they had installed 15 cameras around my house, I decided to install four further cameras inside my home -- one in my bedroom, one at my desk and so on. I thought: If you want to know everything about me, then I'll broadcast and show everything to you. Then I went live with the webcams.

SPIEGEL: Do you consider that to be art or politics?

Ai: Both, I applied their tactics in order to push them into another more philosophical light and to wait and see what happened. It didn't take long for them to call and ask me to please turn off the cameras. I said: "You want to know what I'm doing. Hundreds of thousands of others want to know as well and have been following me for days." It became a big event. They said: "Please turn off the cameras." I asked them if it was a suggestion or an order -- it turned out it was an order. Then I switched them off.

SPIEGEL: The Internet is strictly censored in China, but it is still brimming with ideas and criticism.

Ai: That's why the Internet is the best thing that ever happened to China. It turns us into individuals and also enables us to share our perceptions and feelings. It creates a culture of individualism and exchange even though the real society doesn't promote it. There isn't a single Chinese university that can invite me to give a talk. Even though I know there are many students who would like to hear what I have to say.

SPIEGEL: How do these limitations affect your work?

Ai: It doesn't really affect me because I work and live in the Internet. My virtual life has become my real life. I was reminded of that again a few days ago: I asked my colleagues to print out everything I've written on Twitter in the past three years.

SPIEGEL: Like a book?

Ai: It's around 20 volumes, a pile of paper that reaches up to your hips. I post virtually everything I do on Twitter or Instagram. It's a big art exhibition. Previously a few hundred, perhaps a few thousand people came to my exhibitions. Today I post a video and half a million people watch it.

SPIEGEL: Your government persecutes you and hasn't let you travel abroad for almost three years -- why doesn't it switch off your Twitter account?

Ai: I don't know that there's a clear reason. The relationship between the Chinese government and me is like a Cold War.

'They Want My Voice To Fall Silent'

SPIEGEL: Do you talk to the authorities; do you negotiate with them sometimes?

Ai: Yes I've called them several times and sent text messages. But I don't get any answers. I don't even get a response from the tax office, which claims I owe them a large tax debt. There are no public comments about me. The propaganda department has sent a clear message to all media: not a word about Ai Weiwei.

SPIEGEL: So there's not even a world of criticism?

Ai: Nothing. They want my voice to fall silent.

SPIEGEL: Do you hear from unofficial channels what the government thinks about you?

Ai: That's never become clear to me, even after the heavy interrogations. Sometimes a policeman let slip: We respect you. That came from people who sat opposite me in the interrogation. During one demonstration, where one of the police officers filmed me and I filmed him back, he walked up to me and said: Laoshi, teacher, we respect you.

SPIEGEL: What does the government want?

Ai: When I was released from prison after my arrest for supposed tax fraud, all the authorities tried to make me look bad. But when 30,000 people donated money to me so that I could appeal the ruling, they realized it wasn't working. They still haven't got the money that I supposedly owe them.

SPIEGEL: That's strange.

Ai: So strange. They opened such a big case against me, made such noise and told the whole world I had a tax problem. But then we appealed, the court rejected it -- and they still haven't come to collect the money.

SPIEGEL: How do you explain that?

Ai: I suspect there are various departments obstructing each other and that their officials know that this whole case is fake. And that's why they're waiting for an order to come from higher up.

SPIEGEL: Last year dozens of activists were arrested after they had called for steps to combat corruption. The political atmosphere seems to be cooling off.

Ai: The new government made clear that it doesn't want a public debate about it. And that's the reason why one person after another is arrested on charges that everybody knows are a joke. These activists are only demanding what the Central Committee itself decided years ago but never really implemented: That the senior officials should lay open their assets. Just like they tried to get me with pornography and tax accusations, they're pinning the accusation of "unlawful meetings" on these activists. They're showing how powerful they are. Unfortunately the power of unlawfulness is just as powerful as the power of the law.

SPIEGEL: Why does China's government still resort to such measures?

Ai: Because it's efficient. If your government clearly tells you to your face that it doesn't have to follow the rules, if it tells you openly: Don't even try it, we'll stop you with any means necessary -- then your game is over. At the same time, it is of course also dangerous for the government because it shows how weak its legitimacy is.

SPIEGEL: Weak? Or unassailable?

Ai: It still won't dare concede that it doesn't trust its people even after six decades. Astonishing. The Communists at the time came to power because they had the support of the people. But they never fulfilled their promises. Mao Zedong said: We will always have transparency; the people will have the right to vote. Sixty-four years have passed since then. Where is the voting ballot?

SPIEGEL: At its congress in November the party agreed various reforms -- it wants to close the "re-education" camps, loosen the one-child policy, and curb the power of state enterprises. But it still doesn't want political reforms. It seems to be taking the same gamble as all the Chinese leaderships since Deng Xiaoping: As long as we're economically successful, we don't need to open ourselves politically.

Ai: This is a much riskier gamble today. Deng Xiaoping said: Let us cross the river by probing for stones with our feet. It's not like that anymore. The party is walking a high tightrope. And it doesn't have a safety net. If it falls, there will be a complete disaster. That's why it's so nervous, that's why it's trying to centralize all the power.

SPIEGEL: Has the new leadership done anything right since it came to power a year ago?

Ai: They didn't do anything right. And I say that so clearly because the game is simple: You have to win over the public. Because the leaders aren't connected to the real world, they have no concept of reality anymore. How can they gain faith in this way?

SPIEGEL: What did you think when Edward Snowden revealed that not only you, but all of us are spied on in a more subtle way?

Ai: Edward Snowden was the first to sound the alarm, and that alone makes him a hero. Snowden truly shook a power and exposed it, and that's really amazing for a superpower that thought it wasn't accountable to anyone.

SPIEGEL: Has Snowden changed your view of America?

Ai: Not really because I know that the Americans have been doing it all the time since the Cold War. Most nations that have the technical capabilities do it. But Snowden's revelations are an opportunity to reconsider everything. I admire the American people and the political structure it gave itself. But I have no illusions about power. Where there is power there is danger.

SPIEGEL: Are you disappointed in President Barack Obama?

Ai: When he visited China, I said: President Obama, please do not come if you are not going to talk about human rights. We don't ask for mercy -- if you do business with our government, then you also have a responsibility to talk about human rights. The truth is that his government talks much less about human rights than it could, although I'd like to exclude Obama's former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who always spoke very clearly in favor of human rights and Internet freedom.

SPIEGEL: German Chancellor Angela Merkel is likely to visit Beijing again this year. How do you view her engagement for human rights in China?

Ai: Chancellor Merkel grew up in East Germany; she understands the kind of system we're dealing with. She negotiated about human rights with the last government. That was difficult, but she never gives up. To insist on values is a precondition for every communication that is meant to be meaningful. If you don't do that, the enemy looks down at you. But it's not enough to stress one's values behind closed doors. To negotiate about human rights under the table is insulting to those that it concerns.

SPIEGEL: We thank you for this interview.

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