China Imposes New Ban on Ai Weiwei


June 21, 2012

Ai Weiwei, the artist known for his provocative challenges to China’s police state, told NPR today that he’s been banned from leaving the country.

Ai spent 81 days in jail last year, ostensibly for “economic crimes,” although authorities mainly questioned him about his activism, according to a Reuters report. He was released on bail terms that banned him from using social media (which he defied) and leaving Beijing. The travel restriction ended yesterday, but as he told NPR, he still can’t leave the country:

“They didn’t return my passport, I just realized that,” Ai said. “And they didn’t return my computers. You know, because for subversion of state power, they want to try to find every trace. But they can’t find anything, I guess. I mean, they owe me to say sorry. But of course they would never do it. It’s over, but it’s never totally over. You are still not allowed to go abroad.”

Ai has become a popular figure in China for speaking out against government corruption and other abuses.

FRONTLINE chronicled some of his early activism in our film Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei? We showed how Ai visited Sichuan province, where some 70,000 people had been killed after poorly built government buildings — including schools — collapsed following a 2008 earthquake.

The government wouldn’t release the names of the dead. So Ai marshaled volunteers to compile their own list of names. He later created an entire art installation in Munich, created entirely from children’s backpacks that mirrored those found in the rubble. They spelled out a quote from one of the mothers of the victims, speaking about her daughter: “She lived happily on this earth for seven years.”

“My political involvement, it’s really personal,” Ai said in the film. “If you don’t speak out and you don’t clear your mind, then who are you?”

Ai has gained a broad following by living out his life, and his activism, online — tweeting, and posting images and updates on his projects, and skirting the government’s attempts to check his influence. His name is scrubbed from blogs and forums in China by government censors, though his followers have come up with clever workarounds, leading to a kind of government Whac-a-Mole.

Ai, too, remains defiant. After officials put up cameras outside his compound and sent monitors to trail his movements, Ai posted cameras inside his home, and live-streamed himself sleeping and eating. He was ordered to take the cameras down.

When he was charged with tax evasion, Ai launched a countersuit against tax officials that the government allowed to proceed. That hearing was held yesterday, but he wasn’t allowed to attend.

Ai may also face charges of pornography, bigamy and the illicit exchange of foreign currency, according to the NPR report, if the government chooses to bring more cases against him. It could also bring more serious consequences. Ai has already been put under house arrest, allegedly beaten by police, and stopped once before from leaving the country.

Ai reflected on his current situation in a piece for The Guardian today: “I ask myself if I am afraid of being detained again,” he wrote. “My inner voice says I am not. I love freedom, like anybody; maybe more than most people. But it is such a tragedy if you live your life in fear. That’s worse than actually losing your freedom.”

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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