Ai Weiwei: Every Day We Put the State on Trial

April 15, 2013

World-renowned artist Ai Weiwei grapples with his 2011 arrest and continual censorship, expressing skepticism that the Chinese Communist Party will ever relax its control over civil society, and cautious hope that people are nonetheless beginning to imagine change.

Ai Weiwei

Photo by Gao Yuan, 2010.

For ages, artists have asked difficult questions about the human condition. It is their privilege to pursue such questions without needing to yield practical results. As individuals, and as a society, we can never really say we know everything. Society allows artists to explore what we don’t know in ways that are distinct from the approaches of science, religion and philosophy. As a result, art bears a unique responsibility in the search for truth.

Art is a social practice that helps people to locate their truth. The truth itself, or the so-called truth presented by the media, has limitations. Manipulation of the truth does not lead to a lack of truth—it’s worse than no truth. Manipulated truths help the powerful, or advance the positions of the people who publicize them. So the arts and journalistic media play completely different roles.

Art bears a unique responsibility in the search for truth.

I think it is important for artists to see themselves as privileged, and to bear some responsibility, because their job is about communication and expression. These are the core values of life, of being individuals. Most people don’t realize that they have to fight for this, but for us artists it’s necessary.

By mixing art with personal observations and social commentary, I became part of the first generation to use the internet well. At first I would spend day and night online—16 hours a day, or even 24 hours, if important events were unfolding. I became excited about blogging because I thought it was a way for me to accomplish something I always desired: direct communication. My first blog post in 2005 was a single sentence: “To express yourself needs a reason; expressing yourself is the reason.”

That reason, for me, is clear: In China the media are owned by an authoritarian state, which uses brute power to control information. Since 1949, the media have never revealed a cracked door; even when they want to release a simple fact, it’s always with some propagandistic intentions.

Southern Weekly, which had its New Years editorial article calling for more reforms censored in an incident that became a global event, is just one paper where the Party maintains the right to decide what can be published. To be clear, it’s not privately owned. It has never run the opinions of individuals. They’re a bit more liberal—I know all the editors there—but they never, during the whole incident, spoke out once to defend freedom of expression. Not one of them.

The lives of Party leaders depend on the denial of freedom of speech and democracy.

They never even mentioned freedom. They simply said they had to follow the publishing procedure established by the company, which gives the editors the right to look at final article proofs offered by the propaganda department. The propaganda department abused its power, and the editors objected to the procedural irregularity of their article being published without their final vetting. So the argument has nothing to do with freedom of expression, because the editors did not raise that possibility. They don’t even have the guts to say that.

Of course the public is using this case to fight for freedom of expression. But it’s just a few hundred people—in China, nothing. If it had been a larger gathering, the police would have broken it up and arrested people. During the whole incident, not one editor left the building to talk to the people protesting outside. They think the people outside might cause them trouble.

Today, the newspaper has gone back to business as usual. They owe the public some explanation about what kind of deal they finally set. They need to reach out to their supporters and talk about how the conflict was resolved, not just get back to work without addressing what happened—and honestly explaining the extent of the Party’s influence.

There is no way the Party leaders will relax censorship or grant individual liberties, because they have built a fortune—an empire—from the present system. Without this structure there is no such profit left for them. Their lives depend on the denial of freedom of speech and democracy. In this society, there are two sides: the people who govern and the rest, who have no power. Between them there’s no communication. The people in power never listen to anybody, and they have never made themselves legitimate; they haven’t held real elections in over 60 years.

In this society, there are two sides: the people who govern and the rest, who have no power.

Chairman Mao once said, “As communists we gain control with the power of the gun and maintain control with the power of the pen.” If the people are free to speak, then the first thing they will discuss is the legitimacy of those in power—and those people would immediately lose their power. Over decades, they gradually lost the moral ground. Then they lost the ideological ground. But they still have the army and the propaganda. And they’re not trying to make any improvements; they will literally just grab the gun and kill anybody who has a different voice.

So, traditional media clearly have many restrictions; they are strongly influenced by their owners—the State, in China’s case. On the internet, by contrast, everybody has equal rights. They say all men are created equal, but you’re so limited by who you are, who your father is, whom you know, how much money you have, and your education. Through the internet, everything’s abstract; you don’t really know any of that.

With 140 Chinese characters on Twitter, you can write a short story or novel. It’s not like in English, where you only have room for one question or piece of information. So we’re very privileged. But at the same time, I have been censored countless times for blogging on Sina Weibo, sharing my opinions, and publishing the names and stories of children killed during the Sichuan earthquake. The authorities delete my sentences. When they find that I’m writing too much, they shut off my IP. So I have to use another one and write under another user name. Sometimes in one month I have to use a hundred different IP addresses. Still, whatever I do, they’ll try to recognize me from the way I talk and the name I take—variations on my name like “Ai Weiwei,” “Ai Wei,” “Ai” and so on.

Nobody could ever have imagined something like this would happen: you’re accused by the State, and everybody supports you.

Hundreds of thousands of people have registered similar names to confuse the authorities policing the internet. People support me by wearing these virtual masks, calling themselves “Wei” or whatever. Finally the authorities shut off all access to Sina Weibo and deleted popular accounts linked to me, while they took care to hide their own identities.

In April 2011, I was arrested. After 81 days of detention I was released on probation, and they fabricated an accusation against me and fined me on charges of tax evasion. Thanks to the internet, these events unfolded in front of everybody, and I have garnered a tremendous amount of support. In just the first few days, 30,000 people donated money to us to pay the fine, which is over 9 million yuan.

Nobody could ever have imagined something like this would happen: you’re accused by the State, and everybody supports you. When they give us money, they just say, “We never had a chance to vote. This is our vote, so just take it.” We’re returning every cent, though it may take us a whole year. Many people refused to give us their address, either because they don’t need the money back or they are scared that the police will locate them.

This fight is not about me. It’s a fight for simple principles: freedom of expression and human rights—the essential rights, like sharing our opinions, that make us human and not slaves.

Every day we put the state on trial—a moral trial, conducted with logic and reasoning. Nothing could be better than this. I am preparing a budding civil society to imagine change. First, you need people to recognize they need change. Then you need them to recognize how to make change. Finally, change will come.

This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published in The Guardian.