Artist Ai WeiWei Breaks Social Media Silence

posted by
Filed under: Creative Activism

Ai Weiwei Resumes His Defiance of Beijing
by Jeremy Page
Wall Street Journal
August 8, 2011

Artist Tweets, Speaks Out, Posing a Dilemma for Authorities

Beijing—Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous contemporary artist, appears to be violating the strict terms of his release from custody seven weeks ago, presenting Chinese security officials with a fresh dilemma on how to handle the country’s most internationally recognized dissident.

Mr. Ai is again speaking to both Chinese and foreign media and has resumed sending political messages on Twitter, despite saying he had been ordered not to for a year after his release.

In the latest apparent violation, people close to Mr. Ai are also speaking out about his 81-day detention, saying he was held for much of the time in a windowless cell with two guards who watched him day and night and required him to sleep with his hands visible.

“He had to ask permission to do anything, even touch his own face,” said one person close to the artist. “For exercise, he could only pace up and down the cell, and the guards paced with him.”

Mr. Ai told The Wall Street Journal by phone on Thursday he still could not directly discuss his incarceration, but confirmed that accounts from people close to him were accurate, saying: “I think it’s genuine. It’s all facts there.”

Details of Mr. Ai’s detention were recounted to The Wall Street Journal by people close to him soon after his release but on condition that they not be published, because of the artist’s concerns that he would be detained again.

Now, however, friends appear to have been given a green light to speak out by the artist, who has also since Monday resumed posting political messages on Twitter, despite saying previously that he had been ordered not to for a year after his release.

Asked why he now appeared to be violating his bail terms, Mr. Ai said: “I did what I think is necessary and I’ll take the consequences. I can’t be alive and not express my feelings.”

Mr. Ai, who is 54 years old, was detained at Beijing’s airport on April 3 amid a sweeping crackdown on political activists. The sweep appears to have been prompted by anonymous online calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China following uprisings in the Arab world.

After an international outcry, Chinese authorities released him on June 22 on condition, Mr. Ai said, that he not accept media interviews, or use Twitter, where he has some 98,000 followers.

For six weeks, Mr. Ai stuck to the terms of his release, which he said also required him to ask permission from the government to leave the area where he lives on the outskirts of Beijing.

But he signaled a return to his provocative ways in late July when he opened an account on Google Inc.’s new social-networking service Google+, identifying himself as “a suspected pornography enthusiast and tax evader.”

Twitter and Google+ are blocked by China’s Internet controls, but many Chinese access them via proxy servers and virtual private networks.

Chinese authorities have demanded $2 million in unpaid taxes and fines from Mr. Ai, and a Hong Kong newspaper under Bejiing’s control has said he was suspected of bigamy and spreading pornography. His family deny all the accusations, saying his detention was politically motivated.

On Sunday, Mr. Ai returned to Twitter, sending a few messages about his weight and recent meals and posting some photographs, including one of his own feet on a pair of scales—a not-so-subtle reference to the considerable weight he lost in custody but has partially regained since.

He then resumed his political tweets on Monday and Tuesday, speaking out over the treatment of four friends detained in connnection with his case, and the continuing detention of two more fellow dissidents.

Also this week, Mr. Ai gave his first formal interview since his release to the Global Times, a tabloid run by the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily.

“I’ve been drawn into the vortex of politics,” the newspaper quoted Mr. Ai as saying. “I will never avoid politics, none of us can. We live in a politicized society…I will never stop fighting injustice.”

Mr. Ai told The Wall Street Journal he is still banned from giving interviews to foreign or domestic media, and that a Global Times reporter had spoken with him at his home, without requesting an interview.

The artist also said Chinese authorities had made it clear he could not leave China for a year after his release—ruling out his attending exhibitions overseas or taking up a teaching post in Germany as planned—but had yet to respond to the violations of his bail conditions.

It remains unclear why Mr. Ai—whose father was a famous Communist poet—was detained, although some political analysts believe that China’s security apparatus wanted to make an example of a high-profile dissident in order to intimidate others.

It is equally unclear why he was released, although many analysts and diplomats believe that was due to a visit at the time by Premier Wen Jiabao to European countries, including Britain and Germany, whose governments and arts communities had protested Mr. Ai’s detention.

0ther dissidents who have resumed activism after prison or detention have incurred harsher penalties as a result, including Liu Xiaobo, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009.


More about Ai Weiwei