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Chinese Artist, Activist Ai Weiwei Arrested

April 4, 2011 at 6:21 PM EST
Ai Weiwei, one of China's most famous artists and human rights activists, was detained on Sunday at the Beijing airport. His arrest comes as Chinese officials try to prevent the spread of pro-democracy protests. Judy Woodruff has an excerpt from a Frontline documentary on Ai Weiwei.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next tonight, a two-part look at dissent in China.

First, the detention of one of the nation’s most famous artists and human rights activists, Ai Weiwei. He was arrested yesterday before boarding a flight to Hong Kong. His arrest comes as Chinese officials try to prevent the spread of pro-democracy demonstrations in the wake of the uprisings in the Arab world.

Last week, PBS’ “Frontline” broadcast a documentary about Weiwei.

Here is an excerpt.

ALISON KLAYMAN, “Frontline:” One day, he wanted to tell me about his next big project.

AI WEIWEI, artist: I have a story. I don’t know if you’re interested.

ALISON KLAYMAN: He said the new project would be a response to this, the earthquake that had devastated Sichuan Province in May 2008. Some 70,000 people were killed when poorly built government buildings and schools collapsed.

When he toured the wreckage for himself, he grew outraged at the lack of government responsibility. Weiwei’s eye was especially drawn to the deaths of the schoolchildren, whose names the government refused to release.

AI WEIWEI: This is absolutely crazy. Come on. Those people have names. You know, so we checked things, every office possible. None of them would give us single name of who is dead.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Weiwei put out a call to action on his blog. And he got an overwhelming response. He gave cameras to volunteers to film in Sichuan as they began what he called a citizens investigation into the earthquake deaths.

MAN (through translator): How many casualties were there?

CHILD (through translator): About 94.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Volunteers, young and old, began hounding local officials for the children’s names.

WOMAN (through translator): How many at Xuankou Middle School?

MAN (through translator): Forty-three at Xuankou.

WOMAN (through translator): Forty-three?

WOMAN (through translator): How many names do we have now?

ALISON KLAYMAN: Then, more volunteers posted the names online.

WOMAN: Four thousand, five hundred and forty-six.

EVAN OSNOS, “The New Yorker”: The act of organizing people into a community in China is in itself a very risky thing to do. And he has dedicated himself to doing exactly that. And that puts him into very small community of people.

ALISON KLAYMAN: In the end, Weiwei’s team published more than 5,000 names, including the names of almost all of the students.

The project drew international attention. It also provoked the government’s Internet censors, who are now paying more attention to Weiwei’s blog.

AI WEIWEI: Maybe 20, 30 articles have been taken down by Internet police or by different authorities. I don’t know what’s going to do — the censors shut down my blog.

ALISON KLAYMAN: That’s exactly what the government did in May 2009, as the anniversary of the earthquake approached. And then they did something else.

INSERK YANG, Ai Weiwei Studio: But this is one of the cameras. I think it probably looks at our entry at the main door.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Inserk Yang, Weiwei’s longtime art assistant, shows me the new surveillance cameras.

INSERK YANG: Over there at the corner is another camera.

ALISON KLAYMAN: Weiwei quickly turned his own camera back on the government, getting the photos out on his Twitter feed and incorporating the cameras into his art works.

INSERK YANG: That’s basically his life. He doesn’t make a big difference between art and the architecture and the political activities, you know? It’s just whether it interests him or it doesn’t, you know.

AI WEIWEI: The guy here, he’s — they are watching me.

ALISON KLAYMAN: And then there’s the surveillance van periodically parked outside of his home.

WOMAN: He’s just sleeping in there?

MAN: Yes, there’s — tonight.

EVAN OSNOS: He didn’t in any way abide by the implicit rules of that relationship, which is that you’re supposed to pretend you don’t know you’re being followed, and they’re supposed to pretend that they’re not following you.

AI WEIWEI: Everybody said China changed a lot. To me, it doesn’t change in a certain sense. And that’s what I value the most, you know, such as freedom of speech and, you know, the liberation of the mind, and the — and all those things are not ever changed.

GWEN IFILL: That story was by Alison Klayman for “Frontline.”

As we reported, Weiwei was detained yesterday by Chinese police. He has not been heard from since.

Today, the State Department called for his immediate release.