On Tuesday January 13th I visited Ai Weiwei at his home on the outskirts of Beijing. We talked for a bit over an hour while he ate breakfast.
Despite having designed the Birds' Nest Olympic Stadium, Ai became a vocal critic of China's handling of the Olympics. He has written actively about the Yang Jia cop murder case and other social issues. Recently he held an online auction of a bag of Sanlu Milk Powder, both to make a political statement and to raise money for the helpless and destitute. (Sanlu is the company at the heart of China's recent public health disaster in which melamine-tainted milk became widespread throughout China thanks to official corruption, collusion between industry and party officials, censorship and press cover-ups. As a result the public being uninformed about health risks that officials knew about months before the information went public - only after the Olympics were safely over. Six children died, 300,000 were sickened, and who knows many people were exposed with unknown impact to their kidneys.)
Ai says he wants to stop doing art will focus on politics - or at very least, do political art. He has been blogging actively on Sina for the past couple of years. He also started blogging last year on Bullog.cn, but now that's shut down. Here is an interview with the Index on Censorship last summer. I asked him about his blogging, his political perspectives, and the issues he's been writing about recently. I recorded the whole conversation, though I had originally brought along my recorder for reference and accuracy, and I didn't have a professional microphone with me, so the sound quality isn't very good. Nonetheless, he was quite enthusiastic about the idea that I post the full audio interview. So here it is, unvarnished, bad quality audio and completely unedited, conducted while Ai Weiwei ate breakfast (with the accompanying breakfast-eating sounds):
Below are extended English excerpts. Note that it is not a complete transcript and the translation is by me, which means there are most certainly errors. I welcome corrections. Also note that the excerpts below are not in the original order of the conversation. It was a somewhat rambling conversation so I've re-organized his remarks according to subject groupings and put them in a sequence that I think will make most sense and be of greatest interest to my English-speaking non-Chinese audience - given that this blog is blocked in China anyway. Since the original conversation is in Chinese, people with better Chinese transcription skills than mine are welcome to make a Chinese-language transcript. I can post that here too and welcome others to post it anywhere they want.
On his evolution from artist to political activist:
I want to spend all my time on politics now. However if they stop me it will be difficult, so I need to come up with some ideas, or do art in a different way. Exhibiting art in museums isn't very interesting... Art is connected to our lives. Our lives are political so it becomes political. If our life wasn't political we wouldn't need political art. We are living under massive government controls, we can't say that politics doesnt exist. We can't just say, art for the sake of art. Art is for life. Our life is political. So we have no choice. We've been sucked into politics. [English] We got involved.
...I used to take a traditional approach to my online work, writing articles, posting photos, showing what I was doing every day and who I was meeting with, being very transparent about everything. Then one day I happened to go to this event... and they asked me to contribute an object for them to sell from their shop. So I thought well why don't they do an online auction, then a lot of people will see it, and it will have a big impact. So I set this up with the Vitamin Art Gallery and did it together with them. After posting it online, the response wasn't bad. A 120 yuan bag of Sanlu milk powder [signed by Ai Weiwei] was bid up to 1600 yuan, and the bidding got really fierce... So we decided to take the money earned and buy a bunch of things like coats which we decided to donate over Chinese New Year to the people who come to Beijing to appeal their grievances to the central authorities ["shang fang" 上访], who have no home to return to. That way we were able to turn a small matter into a relief aid fund for rights defending ["wei quan" 维权]. ... A fund for protecting people's rights. Then we took one of these coats put that online to auction it. Because I'm an artist and some people like to collect the things that I have signed. That way we'll raise more money, and make the whole thing bigger, then we'll buy more things and in this way create a relief fund.
RM: Will you create a foundation?
AWW: That's difficult because in China they don't allow NGO's. But in China because of the earthquake and relief effort, there are a lot of disaster relief activities that have led to a lot of people's support and non-governmental organization. Most of these NGO's are spontaneous, they have no money, the government is not so happy about them. So I think this is part of the beginnings or a more democratic society. There are too few levels in our society. Either you have government or you have the masses without ability. Now that we have blogs, we can have a lot more levels. You can have NGO's, you can have discussion, and society is undergoing a big change.
RM: So the Internet has created a very big platform?
AWW: I don't know about in other countries, but in China the Internet's impact is beyond anybody's imagination. The Internet can do more to accelerate China's reforms than any other thing. If it doesn't get shut down it will become the only platform in China where you can have free and democratic discussion.
On the Olympics:
Real Chinese democracy will come from education. In the beginning who didn't support the Olympics? I supported the Olympics. I thought it would bring China to the same level as the rest of the world, would bring about interaction and reform. But the year before the Olympics when I looked at the development I realized that wouldn't be the case. This system wasn't willing to realize that dream, they just wanted to put on a big party for the foreigners. During the Olympics you could see all the foreign companies like [English] NBC, Coca Cola, you know all those, Nike, all those companies. They're the same as the Chinese government. They're even worse. They just want to sell their product. They have nothing but just want to make a, you know, all those companies there, they're all the same shit. They have no belief, they have no, you know any kind of integrity, they just want to make a sale. So to us it's a big learning process.
[Back to Chinese] I was one of the first people who came out and said "stay away from this Olympics." Since I designed the stadium, when I said this it was big news. Then I thought maybe I was wrong, it's still a year away. But in the end it was even worse than I expected. [English] It's a police state. They kick away all the immigrant, shut off most small shops, half of the hotel empty, restaurants nobody there, tickets not well sold. And they just set up this fake fake celebration, even the singer is fake. The sound is fake, and the image of the fireworks is pre-recorded but they don't tell you it's pre-recorded... and many others come out about this, so then you realize: what the government has in mind is just to lie to the world, that's all they want to do.
Thoughts for Obama:
I would very much like to give some advice to Obama. He represents the promise of a new era. He brings the promise of a new era in which we don't treat human beings as a commodity to be traded... On this I think Obama can do a better job than Bush. I think Bush didn't do a good job even though Bush was considered a friend of China. But mainly what he cared about was business. Of course what I'm saying now may be useless since the whole world these days is focused on business. .. But otherwise the loss could be even greater and China could move towards collapse, it's a very unstable society. That's not in America's long term interest. He should be clear on that. ...Don't listen to the subtle arguments of China experts. These issues are not subtle.
...As the leader of a country, he naturally needs to make America's interests the priority, but what are America's interests, and what are America's priorities? ...I remember when Clinton came to China it was great, one of the first things he did was to hug an AIDS patient. It was on the cover of the Beijing News. That was very important. I remember that a Chinese leader didn't shake hands with a Chinese AIDS patient until a couple years later. It was very important. In showing your values you don't have to insult the Chinese government, you just say where you want to go and who you want to meet. Then things will be very clear and all Chinese people will appreciate it. The most important thing is to show your values as a leader: that you wont put aside principle for the sake of cooperation. Otherwise everybody will be disappointed. Take the French president and the German chancellor. They made decisions about meeting with the Dalai Lama. Some people criticized them saying they're naive and stupid. But I have great respect for their decisions. They demonstrated a society's concern for a weak minority group... to simply say you won't have dialogue is wrong... The dialogue [that China is having with Tibet] is thanks to international pressure. If it wasn't for this pressure, China wouldn't have had a dialogue. Every change China makes, if China has moved forward 100 steps it's all because of international pressure. Not a single step is due to its own determination. China's reform and opening has no ideals - what kind of idea is "feeling the stones as you cross the river"? "Letting some people get rich first" what kind of statement is that? They have no ideals. They're pragmatically saying well we don't want to end up like North Korea with people starving so we'd better let some people get rich first. Go out and do whatever you want, be a prostitute, a security guard, whatever, as long as you bring home money. That's the government policy. So we've been cheap labor for a few decades. [English] Unbelievable. But we've ruined everything, education, health. Terrible.
On foreign human rights groups:
Let's put it this way. It's hard to know how much use they've been, but they certainly have been of some use. I think they have been useful in two main ways: First, they have told the Chinese government that human rights is a global issue. It's about the fundamental value of human beings. It's not an individual matter. Second, they've told everybody working for human rights everywhere, we know you exist, we know where you are. This is very important. Imagine if a person is captured and nobody knows about it, how horrible that is. Then the government can arrest anybody, put anybody they want in mental hospital, sentence anybody to death. Now the government realizes they need to think before giving the death penalty. They haven't been useful enough, but they've had some use...I have a lot of respect for people who do this work. Because they truly understand that human rights is everybody's business.
On U.S. human rights policy:
I think they don't interact enough with ordinary people. For instance. They need to pay more attention to the Internet, to NGO's. This kind of expression [of attention] is very important. It's very important to show support. .... For instance yesterday I was talking to Liu Xiaoyuan [the rights defending blogger-lawyer]. He asked me if I can help him go to the U.S. I asked him how many lawyers do you want to take over there? He said we want to take some lawyers over there to see and learn more about the U.S.. I said why not? This should be a long-term plan, we should send 10 lawyers to the U.S. every year. This kind of thing is very important. The most important thing that the U.S. ever did for China was to accept so many students. In the past 30 years there have been millions of people who have returned from studying there. They brought new values back. The U.S. may not be clear that its most successful policy has been to accept so many students from so many countries. ..
...If you as an American criticize us directly we find it impolite. Even if I know what you said is true, I still lose face. ..It's my own home so I don't like outsiders criticizing. What they should do is support us when we speak. They should encourage people to speak about what's happening in their own home.
...But the main thing is moral support on some things. [English] Moral support i think is most important.
RM: You think they're not doing it enough?
AWW: It's not nearly enough. You cant just do diplomacy and business. You have to support the power of ordinary citizens. Because that is the real base for promoting democracy.
Why everybody needs to take responsibility:
I don't think there's such thing as the "outside world" anymore. ...If you are using the products that people have made somewhere else in the world, if you don't concern yourself with their lives, you're committing a crime. I think everybody should be clear on this. They have responsibility. Either you're part of the crime, or you're compassionate. Domestically it's the same thing. If a child is killed by a crumbling building in an earthquake and it's not your child, maybe you don't care. Yang Jia was sentenced to death, maybe you don't care. Poisoned milk has affected 300 thousand children, but it may have nothing to do with you. But this does have to do with you.
...We will never have a real civil society, a democratic society, unless people take responsibility. Why Chinese citizens don't take responsibility and speak their views is partially for cultural reasons, and partially due to circumstances created by government policy. They don't let people take responsibility, don't let them vote, don't let them say ah, I made the wrong choices and I take responsibility for them. Like Americans said, we made the wrong choice with Bush and now we choose Obama. Maybe they'll decide that Obama was the wrong choice too. But they take responsibility for choices made according to their conscience and their duty. They say next time we'll do a better job. Chinese citizens aren't that way. They say well I didn't choose this party and this government, how you build each road is none of my business. How you spend your funds you won't tell me anyway. Why do I want to take any responsibility? Democracy is not a political ideal. Democracy is a means of handling problems. This method is effective, why? Because everybody in society takes responsibility. If nobody is taking responsibility, it shouldn't be called "society." Or its a slave society anyway.
...Even people in the police, even people who make policy, they are all able to make choices. Otherwise my blog wouldn't survive. There are always people who insist. One person says, "this post has to be deleted," but another says "it's best not to delete it." I believe somebody must have worked to make it happen. So I believe the desire for justice and equality is something that people must have in their own hearts. This isn't something that one person can give to another. This is a right that must be exercised. If you don't exercise your right society will be in a difficult state.
As it so happened Sohu [a Chinese blog portal] invited me to a meeting [the other day]... so I opened [a blog] there. In the past I only used Sina [another Chinese blog portal]. So they basically set up a mirror blog for me - everything I post on Sina also shows up on Sohu. Now that my [other] blog on Bullog [which he started in mid-2008] is shut down I figured if one is shut down I open another one.
...Actually I started blogging three years ago, after Sina invited me to open a blog there. At that time - it's really embarrassing - but I didn't know how to type and I'd never been online. I didn't know what "blog" means. They explained its a place where you can put whatever you want to write, and I said "hey, that's a good thing." In the past ten years I've been averaging one or two interviews a day. I do a lot of interviews, hundreds per year. But it makes me uncomfortable because when the Chinese media interviews you, in the end they do the story from their perspective. I speak my mind, I have no taboos, but they have a heavy censorship system. So I figured this is a great idea. I can directly speak to people, and also this helps my own writing because I've always wanted to write but never had the opportunity. I'm an artist. So I could organize my own thoughts.
...I'm so happy to be able to communicate with other people directly, tell them who I am and what my thinking is. People I don't know, who might be very far away, who might never have a chance to meet me. Also another reason is that I can leave a record of the things I've done. It helps me as well as other people to understand what one person can accomplish, and that these things are not so complicated. So at various meetings I've said that I think the Internet is the most important thing for humankind since we came down from the trees, the most important peach that we as monkeys have grabbed. Only with Internet can the individual really manifest himself as an individual. Beforehand, the individual had great difficulty manifesting his individuality within various political, social and economic structures. Only today, when the individual can independently obtain information, and independently express himself, has it become possible. Still in China it's still not entirely possible [for everybody], though in my case it's possible. I'm a very special situation, although it's getting harder and harder. Sina has closed down the comments on my blog where people can leave messages, which has reduced my capacity to get people's reactions and ideas. In the past it was crazy, on a post with 10 thousand page views, there would be over a thousand comments.
RM: On Bullog?
AWW: No, on Sina. I hadn't been on Bullog for all that long. The volume was great though the comments were fewer, they limited them too. On Sina in the past, the volume got really huge. 10% of people who read my post would comment, and out of those, 90% were very supportive or were even very critical of the system and the government. I myself was sometimes very shocked. But everybody welcomed the fact that this was possible. But in the end they [Sina] couldn't take it, it was too direct, too much, it was like thousands of people demonstrating every day, but online. So then they closed the comments. Then I started writing on Bullog, but now Bullog has been closed. So that's basically the situation.
About the Yang Jia cop murder case:
...The incident happened on July 1st and I wrote my first blog post about it on July 3rd, perhaps the first blog post on the Yang Jia case expressing an opposing view. After that I wrote more than 70 posts. Since the Yang Jia case happened, until he was executed, there were about 120-130 days and I wrote 70 posts about it, which means I wrote about it on average every couple of days. It got a lot of attention around the country. Yesterday the Southern Weekend newspaper ran an online poll on the 20 biggest events of 2008. The Yang Jia case was rated number one. When I looked this morning I saw that 70% had selected the Yang Jia case... The attention this case received was beyond expectation. At first the attention came from me and the lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan. We didn't know each other at all. I was writing political commentary. He was writing technical [legal] analysis. We didn't know each other at all, but we brought this to national attention. It's very hard to believe this case, that he killed six policemen. There are cases every day, how can one person kill six policemen? It got the attention of people all other the country, but the news was held back during the olympics. I discussed the case from a moral theory perspective, and discussed it very intensely.
... What's really interesting that people all over the country agreed with our arguments but the foreign media didn't really discuss it. I remember clearly, when Yang Jia's mother was let out of the mental institution, I directly contacted the Guardian from the UK. It is a huge matter that an ordinary citizen is put in a mental institution to suppress her for four months. I'd never heard anything like that before. This was Yang Jia's mother, she knew important details about the case, but they were covered up until Yang's death [execution]. His mother didn't know that he was going to die and didn't leave any statement behind. The Guardian had been wanting me to write for them for a long time, but when I told them about this they said go ahead and write something, so I did, but it seems they never used it.
Most people say, well he committed murder. But I don't think it's like that. I think that an individual murder and a social （社会的）murder are two different things. He killed not for personal reasons, but as a protest against the system. He had no issue with individuals. He had been making appeals through the system for half a year, and finally did this after he got nowhere. And the people he killed weren't the people that had hurt him, [they represented] the police department. And he did it on July 1st, the Communist Party's birthday. All of these things show he was making an act of resistance against the system. There were also some things he said in jail. We followed this whole thing from start to finish, we made a documentary, we interviewed everybody, we gathered detailed materials about what every person did and said on every day and eventually we'll make it public. Nobody else wanted to do this, in China people don't usually do things so systematically so our office did it.
RM: You wrote about this on Bullog?
AWW: No on Sina, you can go and look each post has traffic in the tens of thousands. Because since long ago Sina has not featured my blog on their front page. It's hard to find. They're trying to avoid trouble. On one hand they say they respect and admire me and think my work is very important for China's reforms, but on the other hand they say it's not us but they are constantly getting warnings from the Internet police. Sometimes they remove articles altogether. When they do that I re-post them, then they don't touch them after that. So my blog has become a strange phenomenon. A lot of netizens say how is it that Ai Weiwei's aren't getting deleted? If they repost my articles on their own blogs, their blogs get shut down. A lot of foreign journalists ask me about it. I say I have no way of guessing the thinking of people who run a dictatorship, you'll have to ask them directly at press conferences. Everybody is in a position of guessing.
RM: So the reason why people sympathize with Yang Jia is because he was acting against the system?
AWW: It's not only that. First I'll tell you why I sympathize with him. The incident happened on July 1st and the news came out on July 3rd. I had two initial reactions. The first one was that he's an anti-social person without much social contact, he was the child of divorced parents born in Beijing in the 1980s. The big question mark was what kind of hatred caused him to do this kind of thing. In a system where the police represent the state's authority. Then the media said he was without proper employment. You could say he's "jobless" or "unemployed" but what does with "without proper employment" mean? So I wrote a fairly emotional article, using moral arguments, which said this society has a lot of anti-social people thanks to the government's violence and power. These anti-social people can live happily paying no attention to others, or make contributions to society. But you can't bully and provoke them. Because of what happens when the anti-social person decides not to be anti-social anymore. I made a moral argument which immediately got a lot of attention. I had no idea what would happen in this case but with each step problems came up. The Shanghai Public Security Bureau hired a PSB lawyer. Like it was decided after an hour of examination that he was not mentally ill. All of these were typical problems. Then the Shanghai PSB did a press conference in which they said they never touched him, everything they did was legal and reasonable. Yet this person was getting revenge, although they didnt dare use the word revenge, and immediately took those two words off the Shanghai PSB website. So what was he getting revenge for? They couldn't say. But I wrote a long article analyzing their every sentence. It got a lot of attention. Chinese people are like this, they might say "it wasn't like that" but nobody goes and analyzes every little aspect in a thorough way. I have nothing else to do, I'm just an artist, so I did a long analysis of their document.
So after that I followed the case and wrote an article about it almost every day. His mother went missing. Where was she? Why was the first trial closed to the public? We sent people there but they couldn't get in. Why was the appeal only partially public? Why were there no witnesses? There was nobody to report what Yang Jia said. Nobody else reported Yang Jia's words. We had somebody in there listening. I told them to write it down immediately afterwards, and put it on the blog. For instance, Yang Jia said: a young person like me, living in this system who obeyed the law, why did I end up on a criminal path? He said to the judge: "it's because of people like you that the police dare to commit crimes." He said: "I am not mentally ill, it's these PSB officers who are mentally ill." If we hadn't written these things then they'd never appear in history. Strangely, the media didn't write it. The media was muzzled, there was a clear note to all the journalist papers. Though some media were brave and reported here and there. For instance in the South, which paper was it, I think Southern Weekend did a report. Since the mainstream media couldn't report on this, nobody was doing thorough work on it. Nobody was willing to file a lawsuit on behalf of this kind of 20 year old who killed poicemen. So I and Liu Xiaoyuan became the focal point for everybody who cared about this situation, but who wondered what was up since information on it had been suppressed. The Shanghai city government is very good at doing cover-ups, they're the worst government.
Under these circumstances there was huge interest, it couldn't be blocked. In the end, Yang Jia was executed. But the social reaction was unimaginable. Shanghai's leaders said how did this case get so big that it became such a national concern, and the whole world knew about it? Maybe to say the whole world is an exaggeration but nationally it was number one, bigger than the earthquake, bigger than the poisoned milk powder..
...The Internet is amazing. Otherwise nobody would know. Not only wouldn't the leaders know but people at the bottom wouldn't know either. In the past [before the internet] I know something but you don't know something. Now if I know something everybody knows it very quickly. If the Internet keeps going, if I keep being able to speak out like this, I think very quickly this society will collapse. There are a lot of interests that may prevent this from happening. But I think that at this moment things are very critical. Recently a lot of websites and blogs have been closed down. A lot of blogs have been completely deleted, lots of different kinds of blogs, anything that is political. I don't know how long mine can continue. But there are a lot of problems.
So when you told me you are writing about the Internet I was very interested because it's very different in China than outside. In China it's a much more important factor, culturally and politically. So I think that in the past 10 years, a lot of important policies, changes and debates first came out of the Internet. If there hadnt been [an Internet] these things wouldn't have happened.
On Charter 08:
RM: Some people say they think its contents are fine, but as one friend said to me, it's like performance art. The content is good and its good to have some goals for China's future. But there's no strategy for how to get there, how to build the road from here to there.
AWW: I don't agree with this criticism. Society needs people to voice opinions, to voice strategy, to have technical ideas. These critics don't raise opinions, strategy, or technical solutions. So I don't agree. Its just like in a war, some people blow horns, some shoot the guns, other build the roads. People have different roles. Right? Thomas Jefferson in 1776, when he wrote the Declaration of Independence did he know how to build the road? He had no idea. He simply said that all men are created equal, we need to throw off the shackles of occupation, we need freedom of speech, and that citizens have the right to form their own government. At the time nobody had any idea how to make it happen. But the goals don't say what we need to do today. Of course there are a lot of people doing specific things right now. Through the Yang Jia case we've awakened people around the nation, especially young people, to understand how fairness and justice should be realized, what are a citizen's rights and what are his responsibilities to society. You can get up at 3am and write your own opinions, express your own views. People shouldn't criticize the so-called radical reformists. There is no problem with them, and there's no problem that they have no strategy. The problem is that society doesn't allow discussion of it. You can say they're totally wrong but you need to allow discussion. To criticize them under circumstances where discussion isn't permitted, there's a problem with that position. Not even the smallest discussion is allowed.
The reason I [focused on] the Yang Jia case was to say: you don't even dare allow public discussion about the murder of six people. It's obvious that he would have to be sentenced to death in the end. There is no way his crime could be excused, right? You don't even dare discuss this kind of person? As Yang Jia himself said, I'm not asking to be released, all I'm asking is for them to say whether they beat me. That's all he said "did they or didn't they beat me?" He said he was willing to die for what he did, but he wanted them to answer the question of whether they had beaten him. The judge asked him: "do you think these people you killed are innocent?" He said "I don't believe they are innocent." I think what he said is right, because police are not individuals. They are an feature of state power. You can't say they are innocent unless you can say the state is innocent. Their individual lives are innocent but the job position they have taken is not innocent. They did not stand up and say, "yes my colleague beat you." Why didn't they say this? Right? Not a single policeman, not a single judge is innocent in this country. This is the most basic logic. If even this most basic logic can't be discussed, then this society is really frightening. In fact, none of us are totally innocent because none of us really stood up and spoke out. Now I am very regretful because at the time I could have gone to Shanghai during the first trial, I could have gone and protested outside the court, but instead I had some business abroad that had been booked for a long time. I didn't want to go because of the Yang Jia case but I went. My wife and people working in my office helped to deliver my letter to the high court but it wasn't accepted. They didn't accept express mail or anything so they went to deliver it in person. For that they were all detained, put in a car by plainclothes police. Delivering a letter. Are those people innocent? Is the state innocent? ...
...This country has no channel through which ordinary people can express their views. This is why in 2008 there was so much unrest. It doesn't matter if you're Han or Tibetan, or from Xinjiang, none of them have the ability to express their points of view.
[Even so] with Charter 08, only one person, Liu Xiaobo has been arrested. None of the mainstream media including the People's Daily have come out with a critique. Such a big declaration, directly challenging the central leadership's power, that they don't say anything, that shows that society is changing.