/ 15 April 2011

China ‘like the middle ages’, says arrested artist

Two days before Ai Weiwei’s disappearance, the artist spoke out at his Beijing studio about police surveillance and harassment and warned that “people with different minds and voices are being thrown into prison”.

Describing the scrutiny he had been receiving from the authorities, he said: “There are two surveillance cameras at my gate entrance, my phone is tapped and every message I send on my microblog is censored.

“Yesterday and the day before over a dozen police came to my place but, in my opinion, it is purely nuisance. They are coming again today,” he said, speaking to German broadcaster ARD in his last interview before he was stopped by officials at Beijing airport.

“China in many ways is just like the middle ages. China’s control over people’s minds and the flow of information is just like the time before the Enlightenment,” he said. “Writers, artists and commentators on websites are detained or thrown into jail when they reflect on democracy, opening up, reform and reason,” he said. “This is the reality of China.”

Ai became the most prominent victim of the toughest Chinese crackdown on dissent in a decade when he was detained earlier this month. Western powers and groups of artists have called for the release of Ai, whose whereabouts are unknown.

In the interview he deplored the constraints on freedom of expression, saying that “every piece of news in China is controlled by the ministry of propaganda”. But he insisted he wanted to stay in China. “Unless I have absolutely no other choice, like my life being threatened, I will not leave here because I belong here and there is no reason for me to leave.

“The only thing I can do in China is go on the internet; however my name is a sensitive word on the internet in China and my name cannot be shown on Chinese websites. So working conditions are very bad.”

In a separate interview with Time Out London, published on April 12 and conducted shortly before his arrest, Ai spoke of his fears of imprisonment. “I am afraid of jail, but my father [Ai Qing] was a poet. I don’t admire him much as a poet, but I do admire him when in his early 20s he was sentenced to six years and then later exiled for 20 years in really the worst situation, cleaning the public toilets, and yet he survived.

“So if I think about my father, I think: this was really a strong soul, a poet, who accepted a kind of jail, a human condition … This is how I try to make myself understand what would happen in jail. But nobody really knows what happens.”

He described his role as a prominent dissident who has used the web, especially Twitter, to communicate with young people in China. “They say: ‘This guy is established and has possibilities, but he is standing for me in criticising the current situation and wants it changed.’ So my situation gives people hope through the impenetrable darkness. People have been sick of this situation, some for several generations, and have developed a total hopelessness.”

The constant surveillance by the authorities, he said, “always shows the weakness of their power. It’s so pitiful, you don’t even want to say it: their lacking confidence, their lacking skill in communication, their refusal to discuss any matter intellectually. [The Communist party] must have an enemy. They have to create you as their enemy for them to continue their existence. It’s very ironic.”

Ai’s Sunflower Seeds, the current Turbine Hall installation at the Tate Modern gallery in London, is showing until May 2. The building has become the focus of demonstrations of support, with the words “Release Ai Weiwei” displayed from the lightbox at the top of the building that is usually reserved for publicising exhibitions. On April 10 Chinese artists and British supporters laid pictures of sunflower seeds bearing the names of 50 detained Chinese dissidents and artists on the grass outside the gallery. –