The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was detained for 81 days. He speaks about the changes in his life since the end of his detention in June and shows himself moved and surprised by a new culture of protest in his country.
During recent days, Chinese regime critic Ai Weiwei (born May 1957) seems to have experienced every possible emotion all over again: triumph and defeat, power and powerlessness. First there were the authorities, who applied pressure by issuing an ultimatum for the payment of a tax claim of around 1.7 million euros. And then thousands of Chinese transferred close to 1 million euros via the Internet. Last Tuesday, Ai made a payment of about 970,000 euros -- the amount stipulated as a condition before the artist could officially appeal the claims made by the tax authorities. Ai Weiwei has stated that he is not the legal representative of the firm Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., which is registered in the name of his wife. Since Ai's release after 81 days in custody, SPIEGEL has been in frequent contact with the artist. Last week, the magazine was able to speak with Ai, who is now also accused of disseminating pornographic images by the Chinese authorities.
Ai: I cannot speak for them. But I can tell you a lot about the pressure from the tax bureau and the police department on me. They really, really wanted us to pay. They tried to push us hard. They said: Pay something, you should understand. But they did not tell me what I should understand.
SPIEGEL: So the fact that you finally paid is a kind of victory for them?
Ai: Well, it was desirable for them but we had no choice. They said: If you don't pay, we will bring your case to the public security office, and then you will be facing criminal charges. By law you have to pay first, and then you can make an appeal.
SPIEGEL: Have you ever seen any proof of your alleged tax evasion?
Ai: No, and it is ridiculous. The only reason why they put me in jail is my involvement in politics, my criticism of the authorities. Later the excuse for my detention became my "tax problem." But internally they never told me anything about it. I don't want to underestimate their intelligence, but up to this day I think what they did is very stupid. In fact, they even helped me in an ironic sense. They gave me a chance to explain what is happening with this system. They provided such a platform for me.
SPIEGEL: Is there any chance that your appeal against the tax demand might be successful?
Ai: Almost zero. China never discusses any cases related to politics. They will always use other crimes to charge you with. That has happened since the Cultural Revolution and it is still happening. But the deadly weapon against this kind of totalitarian society is openness. So in my case we do everything very openly on the Internet. We let people know every detail, any little development. Once it is out there, everybody can make their own judgement. So we are holding a trial outside the court. I think that is fairness, that is justice, that is a civil society. Otherwise we call it an evil society because everything is hidden.
A nude portrait of Ai: "Jail is about nothing. Completely blank," he says. REUTERS / Zhao Zhao
SPIEGEL: Many Chinese showed an impressive degree of solidarity by giving you money. Many also added personal messages. Is there one that touched you in particular?
Ai: There were thousands of moving messages. One blogger said: Weiwei, we know who you are, we use our money as a voting ticket. Another one said: Mr. Ai, I am 13 years old, this is the proof that they can never beat us. People sent money from their first month's salary. Others said: This is my retirement payment -- take it. This is the money for my next pair of shoes -- take it. It was very important for me to see and hear those things. Normally you do not see the warmth, humor, care and generosity of the people while writing a blog. You just feel like you are walking in a dark tunnel and you feel alone.
SPIEGEL: Did you underestimate the Chinese people?
Ai: I did. Shame on me. I, and not only me, always thought, in modern history Chinese people are like a dish of sand, never really close together. But today I think a dish of sand is a good metaphor because now we have the Internet. We don't have to be physically united. You can be an individual and have your own set of values but join others in certain struggles. There is nothing more powerful than that. On the Internet, people do not know each other, they don't have common leaders, sometimes not even a common political goal. But they come together on certain issues. I think that is a miracle. It never happened in the past. Without the Internet, I would not even be Ai Weiwei today. I would just be an artist somewhere doing my shows.
SPIEGEL: In China, it is quite unusual for people to show their support for critics of the government so openly. Why do you think they are doing so this time?
Ai: Whenever there is injustice, there is tension. But in China it is very hard to release your anger unless you burn yourself or you jump from a bridge. In a society where there is no freedom of the press, it is difficult for victims to be noticed. Just take the example from yesterday: I had given a telephone interview to CNN. Then, suddenly, CNN was shut down for a couple of minutes. It was the first time I experienced that my television went totally dead. I realized: Oh my God, its because of me, this is crazy! Which nation would do that? Maybe Cuba, North Korea, China. But what do they want, what are they so afraid of?
SPIEGEL: So what is your explanation? Why are you so dangerous to them?
Ai: Truth, this is the greatest danger for this kind of machine. And I am fighting for truth. After 60 years in government they are becoming an underground party again, a secret organization. They never discuss things openly. They don't answer questions. They just give orders, mostly secret orders. But this is not suitable to their position. They have a party with 80 million members. They control this nation. China is the rising superpower. So why are they so shy? What stops them from speaking out? That is the question. Nobody can answer it.
SPIEGEL: Why do you think they are so focused on you?
Ai: I often ask myself this. Why did I become the No. 1 enemy of the state? During my detention even, they kept asking me: Ai Weiwei, what is the reason you have become like this today? My answer is: First, I refuse to forget. My parents, my family, their whole generation and my generation all paid a great deal in the struggle for freedom of speech. Many people died just because of one sentence or even one word. Somebody has to take responsibility for that. If a nation cannot face its past, it has no future. I started to ask questions. Over 5,000 students dead in the Sichuan earthquake. Who were they? The fire in the high-rise building in Shanghai that killed about 60 people. Who were they? I told them: Come on, just answer these very simple questions. As an artist, I am very familiar with how to show the details, how to transform them into a language people can understand. They know that the Internet is a strong force, unbearable for them.
Part 1: 'Shame on Me'
Click here to read: Part 2: 'Do They Want Me To Leave?'
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