Ai Weiwei “Sounds More Perplexed and Unsure than in the Past”
Until recently, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei had kept a low profile following his release from detention on June 22. Early this month, he returned to Twitter to speak out briefly about his detention and urge his supporters to stand up for other detained activists.
We asked Alison Klayman — who spent two years filming the artist and produced the FRONTLINE story Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei? — about the uncertainty of his situation and the broader crackdown on artists and activists in China.
What has Ai been up to since his release?
At first, Ai Weiwei was catching up on the news he missed during his 81-day detention, especially on efforts of supporters around the world, and his own art exhibitions that he missed. He has also been renovating his studio, adjusting to a new reality of a reduced workload and staff.
He has also made a return to social media. On July 25 he created a Google+ account, and on Aug. 5, he even came back to Twitter. In both cases he first said a brief greeting and then posted a current photo to verify his identity, prompting thousands of new followers on both networks. More than 21,000 people added him to their Google+ circles, and on Twitter his followers have surpassed 100,000.
Around Aug. 8, he wrote some vitriolic posts on Twitter about other friends who were detained, but has since backed away from that kind of topical posting. He also clearly still has his sense of humor, like in this photo of his feet on a scale he posted showing how much weight he lost during his detention.
Do you know what the conditions of his bail are?
It’s hard to be clear on the full and detailed conditions, but it seems they include a year-long travel ban outside Beijing (presumably without special permission), not going on Twitter/social media, not speaking to the press about his case or the details of his detention. Except for the travel, he has essentially done all of these things — including one “exclusive interview” he gave a Party-run English paper Global Times. I think all of this stuff is purposely murky.
How often to you speak to Ai? Does he sound like his old self?
I try to check in with Weiwei every 1-2 weeks just to say hello. Most days we can find a reason to joke around, and when he laughs it sounds like his old self. Other times, if we talk about the uncertainty of his situation, he sounds more perplexed and unsure than in the past.
What happened to some of his friends and associates who were also detained? Have they been outspoken since their release?
All of Weiwei’s four associates detained in relation to his case were released in the days following his return home on June 22: Liu Zhenggang from FAKE Design, Hu Mingfen the company’s accountant, independent journalist Wen Tao, and Xiao Pang, his cousin. Liu suffered a heart attack during his detention and questioning, and was sent to his hometown to recuperate. He and Hu were both very difficult to reach immediately following their release, with many friends reporting their phones were often out of service.
One of the conditions of Wen’s release was reportedly to stop associating with Weiwei’s studio altogether, though a photo on Flickr showed that he managed to visit Weiwei at least once. Since Aug. 19, he has also returned to Twitter, in much more full force than Weiwei. He is tweeting dozens of posts a day about current events and engaging with his followers.
Has the broader crackdown on Chinese artists and intellectuals that started in mid-February continued?
There continues to be news of detainees being released after months-long detentions, and occasionally some coming up for trial. When Weiwei posted a few political tweets in early August, he wrote a lot about two particular individuals: Chengdu-based blogger Ran Yunfei, and legal rights activist Wang Lihong. Ran was one of the first detained on Feb. 19, and was released more than six months later on Aug. 10. 56-year-old Wang was detained in March and is standing trial, facing up to five years in prison for “creating a disturbance.” About her case, Weiwei tweeted: “If you have a mother, if you are a woman, if you are a common person, if you don’t wish to be disappeared or falsely accused, pay attention to Wang Lihong.”
Most newly-released detainees stay silent about the details of their “disappearance,”seemingly as a condition of their release. I think there’s a lot to be learned by the brave writing on Twitter by lawyer Liu Shihui. Liu was detained in February in Guangzhou and held for 108 days. Here is a translation of his disturbing account of that detention from blogger Joshua Rosenzweig.
You talked to us about how Chinese internet users “jump over the firewall” in order to use blocked sites like Twitter. Has that become more difficult lately?
Yes, my friends in China have been reporting that Internet speed has become increasingly slow since February of this year. Many VPNs have stopped working and services that didn’t used to cause trouble like Gmail are now unreliable.
What kind of response has your FRONTLINE story Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei? generated from Chinese-speakers?
Right after the FRONTLINE story aired, Ai Weiwei himself commented to me that so many people on Twitter were moved by the piece. Since then, several versions of the story were uploaded with user-generated Chinese subtitles, including on Viddler and YouTube, with a combined viewing total of over 40,000. Three months ago, Weiwei’s own YouTube channel added it to their page.
Tell us about your upcoming film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.
The feature documentary that I have been filming since 2008 is close to completion. After so many ups and downs over the last few months, I am so relieved that Weiwei is no longer detained. In a way, his release gave me the freedom to return to the film I always intended to create: an in-depth portrait of a world-famous artist and an engaged citizen of China. No longer at the mercy of such dire current events, I am able to take a more timeless approach to the storytelling, and Weiwei is the most incredible character. I feel so lucky as a documentarian to have a rich and important subject, and that so many people around the world are waiting to see more of him.