Beijing's best-known dissident, architect, and creative provocateur tells Jonathan Landreth what's wrong with China's frenetic capital.
Ai Weiwei's studio compound sits behind high, ivy-covered gray brick walls on an isolated street in Beijing's shabby northeast outskirts. China's best-known dissident, architect, and creative provocateur, Ai used to travel around the country making art and recording injustice: He helped design Beijing's famous Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics (before denouncing it as "propaganda") and fought with authorities in Sichuan province over their handling of the 2008 earthquake, in which thousands of children died. All that stopped, however, when Chinese police imprisoned him in April 2011 on politically motivated charges of tax evasion; when he was finally released after 81 days in custody, he was forbidden from leaving Beijing for a year. (He has since been given permission to travel domestically.) Ai, who lived in New York for much of the 1980s, has become a patron of China's disaffected urbanites, and here, in his tranquil garden, he holds court, offering advice to the thousands of fans, bloggers, activists, and petitioners who visit from all across China and the world. Despite the government's relentless attempts to shut him up, Ai is still talking. The first change he would make to Chinese cities? Free the people.
Foreign Policy: A year ago you said that Beijing was a "constant nightmare." Have your views about Beijing changed?
Ai Weiwei: No. Beijing's greatest problem is that it never belongs to its people. Though it's a city of more than 10 million, people living here are like people living in a hotel.
There are some small changes in recent years, but not many. First of all, Beijing is a city of immigration. When it was liberated in 1949, the area of the city was equal to the area of construction built for the Beijing Olympics. Every year, the area of Beijing in 1949 has been added to the city again. In the past 10 to 20 years, Beijing has expanded 10 times on its size in 1949. They come from everywhere seeking opportunity because it's the capital and it controls all the resources. Every day 1,000 cars are sold in Beijing, a line of cars eight kilometers from front to back.
It's growing at this rate, but why? Does Beijing have beautiful scenery? Does it have lakes and mountains? No. Every document, every order, comes from this city, and it presents enormous opportunities in land, roads, energy. You see good roads and good parks, and there are some changes. But what sustains them? The tax revenues of the authoritarian state. Its bureaucracy and capital make it like a monster, consuming everybody.
FP: Beijing is this complicated place for you.…
AW: Beijing? No, Beijing is too simple because there are only two types of people here. The people with power, who are ruthless, can take every inch of land and kick you out and pay you some money and build a skyscraper and make a fortune. There are so many billionaires who only need a government note to tell them, "This belongs to you; you can do it now." The rest are the silent people, who just have to bear it.
FP: In 1949, American writer E.B. White said in Here Is New York that New York was three cities: the city of the native, who gives it solidity and continuity; the city of the commuter, who comes to the city temporarily for business, and they give the city its restlessness. The third city is that of the immigrant, who came for the dream and stayed; this group gave New York its passion, its culture, and its art. You lived in New York for more than a decade, but it's been almost 20 years since you left. Do you see any similarities between 1949 New York and Beijing today?
AW: Maybe it looks similar, but it's completely different, because we are not in a democratic society and the resources and decision-making aren't fairly distributed. So many officials are escaping China with huge amounts of money -- shocking numbers, billions. Then you start to ask: Why can't they stay? China's like heaven for corruption. So why do they have to escape? Because the system will not protect them, because there are always political struggles here. They just take the money and leave.
FP: E.B. White talks about going to New York as an escape from reality into a city made up of little villages.
AW: Yeah, but they're well protected. Nobody can evict people from Chinatown, no matter how dirty the place is or how much the people may seem like animals from another planet. There are all those old Guangdong people who stay there but don't speak English, but nobody can kick them out. In Little Italy, you can still see the old buildings and the streets where they shot The Godfather and Mean Streets. That's a town where you can still relate to other people, your father's or your grandfather's joy or sadness. You can sense it. Normally we call it humanity. Where is the humanity in Beijing? Who can remember the corner where he went to school, or can touch a particular old piece of wall? Can you remember anything here? There's nothing left.
A city's at its strongest when it can reflect people's feelings, freedom, and desires. New York is a city of desire, for the powerful, and for beauty. But there's the American Dream -- equal opportunity to be rich and secured by the law. People feel nobody can touch them, because there's law. Beijing is a city with none of these qualities. An artist can be taken away from an airport with a black hood, disappeared for 81 days. When a nation can launch a satellite but cannot give a clear sentence about what happened to me, that scares people. A lot of people think, "Oh, if he can be treated that way, then everybody can." If a city tries to get $2.4 million in taxes but refuses to give evidence, refuses to have an open court, refuses to allow witnesses to sit in court and hear what's happening, and even refuses to allow media to listen in to talk about it, what kind of city is this? Are you joking? My case is the most publicized, but what about other people? They have to learn another skill -- to be silent, to suffer without making any noise.
FP: But it's still home. If you weren't here in Beijing, where would you be?
AW: It's a home not occupied by the people. That's the problem. A home can be poor, and we'll still love it because it belongs to us. It can show our feeling, our attachment, our memory, and our hope for the future. But in Beijing, people disappear for political reasons or other reasons, yet we have no open trials, no media discussion. My name cannot appear on the Internet. What is the future?
FP: If you changed one thing about Beijing for your son, what would it be?
AW: Just one thing? [Laughs.] Liberation. I think everybody deserves freedom. Freedom is such an abstract word, but it's all we need.
FP: You just talked about Beijing, and you also had trouble in Shanghai with your studio there.… [Chinese officials tore down Ai's studio in Shanghai in January 2011.]
AW: It's not just Beijing. It's a problem of the system, which could be more efficient, more loving, friendlier to people. Even if you're not elected. But that's very naive. That's why you need democracy. Either you're elected or you have to leave, because otherwise you're a monster.
FP: Are there Chinese cities where you have been pleasantly surprised for the better?
AW: No way. Other places are worse than Beijing. There's less opportunity and more corruption. It can be very ruthless. It's beyond comprehension, some of the things that have happened. The one exception is Tibet, because of its natural resources, but the Tibetan people are burning themselves to death. Already over 40 of them in the past two years, and nobody's talking about it.
FP: Have you been to Lhasa before?
AW: No. I would feel ashamed to go. I think to respect [the Tibetans] is not to touch them, to leave them alone.
FP: An acquaintance of mine who works for CCTV [the state broadcaster whose new headquarters are in a landmark building designed by architect Rem Koolhaas] said she's afraid to go to the new building because she thinks it's a terrorist target.
AW: Oh, that building … only when it's occupied, because then it will be occupied by terrorists. Nobody will touch it [laughs]. Come on; don't be naive! They are the No. 1 terrorists. They raped this nation's ideology and thinking for 60 years.
FP: Are you traveling again soon?
AW: For the past year, I've not been allowed to travel, but now by logic and reasoning I'm a free man, except that I cannot leave China. You know, I have no desire to travel. I have so many things to do; I cannot finish them now.
FP: Your life seems to have migrated onto the Internet almost completely.
AW: Yeah, before you arrived, I'd already spent two hours on the Internet.
FP: So, if your life moves onto the Internet, that's a big, open city.
AW: It is. Twitter is my city, my favorite city. I can talk to anybody I want to. And anybody who wants to talk to me will get my response. They know me better than their relatives or my relatives. There's so much imagination there; a lot of times it's just like poetry. You just read one sentence, and you sense this kind of breeze or a kind of look. It's amazing.
FP: And yet the city of the Internet is not free for everyone here.
AW: No. We have to dig in or climb over, and we have to do so many things to reach our city. That makes the city beautiful. It's worth the effort.