Ai Weiwei: Beijing is “A Constant Nightmare”


August 29, 2011

Ai Weiwei continues to test the limits of his release from government custody — this time in a bleak essay for Newsweek about the city that houses one of his most famous works, the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” Stadium:

Beijing tells foreigners that they can understand the city, that we have the same sort of buildings: the Bird’s Nest, the CCTV tower. Officials who wear a suit and tie like you say we are the same and we can do business. But they deny us basic rights. You will see migrants’ schools closed. You will see hospitals where they give patients stitches—and when they find the patients don’t have any money, they pull the stitches out. It’s a city of violence.

Last week, we asked Alison Klayman, who spent two years filming Ai and produced our March film, Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei?, about the conditions of Ai’s release:

“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.”

In the Newsweek article, Ai technically does not go into the details of his case, only once referring to “my ordeal.” But his criticisms are nonetheless pretty explicit:

My ordeal made me understand that on this fabric, there are many hidden spots where they put people without identity. With no name, just a number. They don’t care where you go, what crime you committed. They see you or they don’t see you, it doesn’t make the slightest difference. There are thousands of spots like that. Only your family is crying out that you’re missing. But you can’t get answers from the street communities or officials, or even at the highest levels, the court or the police or the head of the nation. My wife has been writing these kinds of petitions every day, making phone calls to the police station every day. Where is my husband? Just tell me where my husband is. There is no paper, no information.

If Ai’s latest salvo does provoke Chinese authorities, he may face more dangerous consequences. The Los Angeles Times reports that the Chinese government has proposed changes to its criminal code that would allow suspects to be detained for up to six months in a secret location — which will not be “a regular detention center or police station” — without notifying family members or lawyers. “This new amendment will legalized ‘forced disappearance,'” the Times cites Beijing attorney Liu Xiaoyuan as writing on his Twitter feed. Ai was released in June after two and a half months in custody.

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