November 12, 2021

Ai Weiwei

Artist, activist and former political prisoner Ai Weiwei discusses resisting authoritarianism in China and beyond, whether the West can handle China’s rising influence and his latest act of self-expression, his memoir.

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MH: An artist and a voice for freedom… this Week on Firing Line.

AI: I think every art if it’s relevant is political

The son of a poet persecuted during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, artist Ai Weiwei went from helping to create the iconic Bird’s Nest Stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics to becoming a captive of the Chinese government himself.

CLINTON: The prominent artist Ai Weiwei was taken into custody just this past Sunday.

Reporter: The conditions you were held under, can you say anything about that?

AI: No, I cannot say anything.

He’s taken on tyranny in Beijing and beyond with his art and his activism, identifying each of the thousands of children who perished in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake then representing them in his art, smashing symbols of Chinese history, and creating strong messages about what he observes in the world.

HOOVER: Did you see it, later?

AI: No, no. I was in detention.

What does Ai Weiwei say now?

‘Firing Line’ with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Fairweather Foundation, the Asness Family Foundation, and by The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation and Damon Button. Corporate funding is provided by Stephens Inc. and Pfizer Inc.

HOOVER: Ai Weiwei, welcome to Firing Line.

AI: Thank you.

HOOVER:  Your newly published memoir is entitled “A Thousand Years of Joys and Sorrows.” You chronicle the history not just of your struggles with the Chinese government, but also your father’s. And you both suffered in exile, in imprisonment. You write in the book,  quote, “The individual’s yearning for freedom can never be repressed. It always finds expression in one form or another.” At what point in your journey did you learn this truth?

AI: Well, not until very late of my age. I started working on the internet. I realize there’s such huge obstacles in front of me. But as long as I can keep expressing myself I’m in good shape because I can always extend my emotions and my opinions towards other people who never have a chance to speak their mind. But gradually, the fight become very difficult. I was arrested. I was threatened to be put in jail for a long, long time. So only by that time, I realize I have to write a book about the whole journey.

HOOVER: Well, in your book, you detail the history of your father, who was an internationally renowned poet, Ai Qing, and his tumultuous journey with the Chinese Communist Party, accused of being a Rightist, your father was banished to Xinjiang province, which is also known as Little Siberia, and you joined him where you lived for many years with him in a dugout as the Cultural Revolution forced him to undergo reform through labor. Today we meet in the Art Students League of New York, where you studied decades later as a student in the 1980s and the 1990s. What does New York City represent to you artistically?

AI: It’s very hard to describe New York City in one word, but it was crazy. It’s very physical and it’s beyond the imagination. There is so much energy and so much desperation in one Manhattan. And after so many years, I come here, I still feel the same. The city never changes.

HOOVER: You were in New York in 1989 when the protests in Tiananmen Square broke out, and you write in your book that you watched every moment of that on television. How did the Tiananmen Square protests influence your decision to go home?

AI: When I left China in 1981 I made a decision I would never go back. I don’t even look back. And then killed in 1989 many students and also student leaders, which I know. I know them. And they organized a peaceful demonstration, staying in Tiananmen Square until one day, June 4th, being crushed by the military. So somehow it draws my attention back to China. And I just want to be with my father before he pass away. Yeah, just to be there.

HOOVER: You write in your book, “Young people in China today have no knowledge at all of the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and if they knew they might not even care, for they learn submission before they have developed an ability to raise doubts and challenge assumptions.” How has the Chinese government succeeded in erasing that memory?

AI: The Chinese government is very sophisticated. They succeed in every way for propaganda. They believe if they keep presenting the untruthful conclusion, history will also write it that way. And all the young generation, they have no other way to even to raise the question or challenge this conclusion from the government. So basically, the whole generation or generations of Chinese majority will be on the side of the government, which is a pity.

HOOVER: The internet emerged when you returned to China. So how do you see the internet and the power of the internet in 2021?

AI: At the very beginning, I do feel the internet would liberate China because that’s the first possibility for an individual like me to speak out. But very soon the Chinese government learned faster than anybody. They know how to control the internet. They hired probably millions of internet police to just watch every sentence. So every move, every every act on the internet would be clearly recorded and calculated. So it becomes so sophisticated for censoring and monitoring every individual. And it’s beyond imagination.

HOOVER: You’re describing a surveillance state.

AI: Surveillance state is too– it’s the highest extreme. It’s like art and it works so well for an authoritarian state.

HOOVER: After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake the Chinese government was not transparent about the deaths, particularly the deaths of students. You went on a mission to identify every single child who died in that earthquake and you were able to assemble with your volunteers the names of 5,196  students. You say you went from being an artist to being a social activist. How do you reflect back, Ai Weiwei, on that moment when your art and your activism merged?

AI: As I was educated, we always separated art from politics. But by 2008, after experiencing this very sad story, I question myself as an artist, as an individual. What should I do? And of course I can write articles. I did write over 50 articles related to the earthquake, but that seems not enough. I have to find new vocabulary, and that takes me to the earthquake location and to be there to experience it.

HOOVER: The Munich exhibition that followed featured thousands of backpacks that formed  the single sentence of one of the victims from her grieving mother.

AI: So what I have seen on those ruins is a lot of students’ backpacks everywhere. And so I picked up some. I don’t know what to do with it. It is so dirty and it’s so hard even to look at it. But by 2009 I had a chance to show in Haus der Kunst Munich. That’s a building Adolf Hitler built for his art. So I thought, I’m going to change the facade of this kind of classical looking building. So I used, I designed the nine thousand and more bags and constructed one sentence of this earthquake victim’s mom. She said, “I only want my daughter to be remembered. She happily lived in this world for seven years.” So I promised her I would do something to memorize Yang Xiaowan, who is the victim, and I did it.

HOOVER: You say you’re an eternal optimist, but suffering is at the heart of much of your art. Is suffering necessary for you to create art?

AI: For me, suffering is necessary. Without suffering I would not be here. Suffering teaches me so many things, because suffering is an extreme condition human society can put on an individual and you have to understand why and how that functions.

HOOVER: You’ve also described yourself as a provocateur, a contrarian. In 2009, when you were detained and beaten, instead of retreating, you pressed for answers. You documented the experiences, including an image that you snapped when they detained you. It went viral and you ended up in prison for 81 days, supposedly for tax evasion. How, in that time that you were detained, did you retain a sense of individualism?

AI: I think during that detention, you clearly understand why a state would kidnap one individual. You see they are really taking you seriously, so that makes it more clear how those authoritarians are afraid of art, afraid of different attitudes, different opinions, and they just cannot coexist with that.

HOOVER: What do you think they’re afraid of?

AI: My art shakes the foundation of their legitimacy, and that probably is the obstacle they can never overcome. It’s not possible for them to face my challenge.

HOOVER: You received your passport back in 2015 and you left China, perhaps permanently.

AI: I wouldn’t say permanently.

HOOVER: That’s what I want to know.

AI:  My life would be too short for any permanently. But I have a chance to leave and I ask them. They said, ‘You have freedom now. You can leave to anywhere you like.’

HOOVER: When was the last time you were in China?

AI: That’s five, six years ago.

HOOVER: So is it only time that has kept you away?

AI: No. Also the situation in China has become more extreme in terms of censorship, in terms of their tolerance to dissidents. And many, many dissidents have been put in jail. Most of my friends are still serving in jail now.

HOOVER: Do you think they would honor their commitment to you that you are free if you returned to China today?

AI: I always trust people till I cannot trust them. So I would think they would let me be free, as they should keep their word. But it has been proved they never keep their words, so.

HOOVER: Are you hopeful about the future of China?

AI: I’m hopeful for, I will not say future for China. China is changing and nobody can know what exactly the future is going to be.

HOOVER: I wonder if that was a way of being careful to not say something. Do you think about how your words are heard in China when you answer questions like that?

AI: I’m sure they are monitoring every word, every sentence I talk. But that would not affect me. But only when I tried to predict what is going to happen, there’s so many possibilities, and I don’t think we can easily talk about it in one interview.

HOOVER: But are any of them hopeful?

AI: I don’t think so. Not in a short time.

HOOVER: You know, your father was sent for “reform through labor” in Xinjiang. You were with him there. And of course, that is the site that today is a place where Uyghurs are sent for forced reeducation and labor camps. What is the West’s responsibility with respect to human rights in China?

AI: What’s the responsibility? I would think if they just talk a lot, it would be empty words. Morally and practically if the West are not demanding the very basic values such as human rights, freedom of speech, then the West will be totally corrupted before China get away. So this is a deadly serious problem.

HOOVER: In your book you’re describing the directives of Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution that would be distributed publicly every night. And then you write, this is your quote, “They served a function similar to Donald Trump’s late night tweets while in office. They were the direct communication of a leader’s thoughts to his devoted followers, enhancing the sanctity of his authority.” So do you see Donald Trump as an authoritarian?

AI: Well, I don’t– You know, if you are authoritarian you have to have a system supporting you. You cannot just be an authoritarian by yourself. But certainly in the United States, with today’s condition, you can easily have an authoritarian. In many ways, you are already in the authoritarian state. You just don’t know it.

HOOVER: How so?

AI: Many things happening today in the U.S. can be compared to the Cultural Revolution in China.

HOOVER: Like what?

AI: Like people trying to be unified in a certain political correctness. That is very dangerous. You want to go deeper?

HOOVER: Yeah, because that was actually that, that was the next thing I was going to ask you about. So what kind of political correct extremism?

AI: It’s very philosophical. With today’s technology we know so much more than we really understand. The information becomes jammed. But we don’t really have the knowledge because you don’t work. You don’t have to act on anything. You just think you’re purified by certain ideas that you agree with. That is posing dangers to society, to an extremely divided society.

HOOVER: Why do you think that’s happened here?

AI: I think for a long time, the West– materially, we have much more than we need, and we are not caring about the global situation. But eventually all the policies and the politics we play has to be examined under the global situation, such as China becoming a very powerful state, and how the West should deal with it.

HOOVER: How should the West deal with Chinese increased influence?

AI: In China, we have a saying: “To deal with anything, you have to be strong yourself.” I don’t think the West is strong enough themselves to deal with China.

HOOVER: In what sense is the West not strong?

AI: In many, many ways you can sense the failure of the West, by lacking vision, or lacking compassion in dealing with the refugee situation, climate change. And also the war in Afghanistan, Iraq. So I don’t think the U.S. has the ability to really examine the situation of its own moral and aesthetic  behavior.

HOOVER: You have for a long time called for the freedom of Julian Assange. You visited him in prison. You staged a protest against his extradition to the United States. And last year you even said, quote, “he truly represents a core value of why we are free because we have freedom of the press.” Assange has been linked in some reporting, actually lots of reporting, to the Russian government. How would that change your view if he is in fact acting in concert with or on behalf of an authoritarian regime?

AI: Julian Assange exposed US invasion in Afghanistan or Iraq, which use, you know, to kill civilians and exposed, that’s the fact. That’s why the U.S. hates him, you know. It’s not because he’s connected to Russia, but rather because those information the U.S. think should not let the public know. But does the public have the right to know? I think it’s very, very important for the public to know, and very important tool for journalists to have their own possibilities to reveal the truth.

HOOVER: Would it change your view of him if you found he were acting in concert with an authoritarian regime?

AI: It would not change my view because his platform also may support the US government in some way. You know, anybody can enter the information. He only provides that possibility. He represents journalism, especially investigative journalism. If he is being punished, that means many journalists’ acts would be questionable. And then we would no longer have someone to investigate the government, which very often — it doesn’t matter China or the U.S. — is hiding activities, which nobody would ever know.

HOOVER: Do you think that any state has the right to keep anything secret?

AI: Of course, they all have rights to keep things a secret and protect their citizens, but they should not have rights to have secrets, hiding dirty games. There’s a lot of dirty games going on.

HOOVER: The debate, right, is over whether Assange threatened individuals who work for the government.

AI: People like Assange or Snowden or Chelsea Manning, these are just a few individuals. There’s millions, millions who work for the government. It is just jumping out a few guys who happen to have a conscience to say, hey, this is not something we should do.

HOOVER: Do you think that your standing up to Chinese authorities is the same as their standing up to their governments?

AI: I think my act in defending human rights or individual freedom would exactly match what they did. Very different the location under different, facing different problems. But I understand them very well. They take personal risk. They may end up in jail. If Julian is extradited to the U.S. he’s facing 175 years in jail for espionage. He’s a political prisoner.

HOOVER: Do you think there’s a moral difference between the government of China and the government of the United States? Does representative democracy create a different system whereby the process for adjudicating crimes against the state is morally different than the process for adjudicating, perhaps, your quote-unquote ‘crime against the state?’ in a totalitarian regime.

AI: Well, they are different, but they have similarities. They have very big differences, but they do have a lot of similarities.

HOOVER: In 1968 on the original Firing Line, William F. Buckley, Jr., welcomed Allen Ginsberg, this famous beat generation poet from the United States. Allen Ginsberg is somebody that your father knew and somebody that you met when you were here in New York. Take a look at this clip of Allen Ginsberg reciting a poem on the original version of this program in 1968.


Breath trembles in white daisies by the roadside,

Heaven breath and my own symmetric

Airs wavering thru antlered green fern

drawn in my navel, same breath as breathes thru Capel-Y-Ffn,

Sounds of Aleph and Aum

through forests of gristle,

my skull and Lord Hereford’s Knob equal,

All Albion one.

BUCKLEY: I kind of like that

AI: He’s truly amazing. He’s not a normal poet. He’s a soul. He represents the soul of the intellectual world in America and he is so beautiful.

HOOVER: Well, it was Ginsberg who told you, you need to write down your memories.

AI: Yes.

HOOVER: And the first thought is always the best, which has led perhaps to “A Thousand Years of Joys and Sorrows.” Do you see more joys or more sorrows for your son Ai Lao?

AI: What I’m satisfied by, if I look back on my experience, I think the joys and sorrows are half and half. They balance each other and that makes me feel satisfied.

HOOVER: Ai Weiwei, thank you for being here on Firing Line. Thank you for your time.

AI: Thank you for your posing some tough questions. I love that.

‘Firing Line’ with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Fairweather Foundation, the Asness Family Foundation, and by The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation and Damon Button. Corporate funding is provided by Stephens Inc. and Pfizer Inc.