The artist Ai Weiwei (pronounced “eye way way”—Ai is his surname) is the Chinese government’s worst nightmare: an internationally revered art star who uses his work and celebrity to advocate for democracy and free speech in a nation with neither. The government has employed a draconian campaign to silence him. Ai is under constant surveillance. He has been threatened, placed under house arrest and physically attacked by a police officer. Ai’s incendiary blog, read by thousands of Chinese citizens, disappeared one day. And so did he: In 2011, state police grabbed him at the airport, threw a black bag over his head and drove him to an undisclosed location, where he languished for 81 days in a tiny prison cell. Despite these attacks, Ai has continued his virulent criticism of the Chinese Communist leadership, which he deems repressive, immoral and illegitimate.
Ai’s dissidence is particularly discomfiting to the Chinese government as it attempts to retain its stranglehold on its citizens while also cementing its position as a global economic powerhouse. Ai’s domestic and international influence is growing. Using art, technology and civil disobedience in his antigovernment campaign, he continues to embarrass the regime—and threaten it. Most observers agree that if it weren’t for his international celebrity, Ai would still be imprisoned, like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence, or he’d be exiled, like blind dissident Chen Guangcheng. The last time Ai was imprisoned there were worldwide protests; world leaders including Hillary Clinton called for his release.
Ai’s political activism and art are informed by his tumultuous childhood. His father, Ai Qing, one of China’s most revered poets, studied in Paris before returning to China in 1932, when he was arrested by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party. With the Communist takeover, the elder Ai was for a time in favor of Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s regime. Then he wrote a poem that extolled the virtues of a culture that celebrated rather than repressed multiple voices. For this he was exiled to a “reeducation” camp, where he was humiliated, beaten and forced to clean toilets for nearly two decades. Ai Weiwei spent his early years in the camp.
The Beijing National Stadium © 2011 Peter23, Wikipedia
After the Cultural Revolution, Ai attended the Beijing Film Academy. In 1981 he left for the United States, where he studied English, worked odd jobs and made art. He returned to China after 12 years and worked as an architect, artist and antiques dealer. He gained international attention for his collaboration with the architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron on the design of Beijing’s National Stadium, nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, built for the 2008 Olympics. His reputation in the fine-art world grew too. His controversial pieces include a series of photographs in which he uses the international hand gesture for “fuck you” to send a not very subtle message to the Chinese government. He smashed Neolithic pottery, created a giant sculpture out of Qing dynasty stools, built a breathtaking art installation in Munich out of 9,000 children’s backpacks to commemorate the thousands of students killed when their schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (he blames the high death toll on the Chinese government for allowing the schools’ shoddy construction) and spread a sea of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds across a gallery in the Tate Modern in London.
After being released from prison in June 2011 Ai was placed under house arrest. By 2012 he was no longer confined to his Beijing compound, but the government held his passport, preventing him from leaving the country. He was unable to attend the opening of a major survey of his work at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.
Since Ai couldn’t leave China, Playboy sent Contributing Editor David Sheff to meet him there. Sheff, who has interviewed Representative Barney Frank, journalist Fareed Zakaria and Apple’s Steve Jobs for us, reports, “Over the course of the days we spent together, I accompanied Ai on his daily walks through a Beijing park. He said he walks so he’ll be in better physical shape if he’s arrested again. Following these walks, each afternoon he visits his young son, who was born in 2009 to a girlfriend; Ai has been married to artist Lu Qing for 17 years. Though he lives with the constant threat of arrest, each evening after his time with his son Ai takes his place in front of a computer and spends six or more hours writing illegal Twitter messages to 200,000 followers. Helped by a coterie of hackers, he manages to circumvent the government’s ‘Great Firewall’ to send out missives about what he considers his government’s latest sins.”
PLAYBOY: Other renowned Chinese dissidents have been either imprisoned or exiled. Why are you allowed to remain free?
AI: I don’t know if I am free. There’s a threat always that any minute I could be arrested. Why they don’t arrest me now, I don’t know. I don’t know why they arrested me the last time. I don’t know why they let me go after three months. They said I would be in for 10 years.
PLAYBOY: Do you know why they’re holding your passport?
AI: There has been no explanation. I don’t know why, because if they don’t want me to leave the country, they could stop me at the airport. The government doesn’t explain. They don’t have to explain. The Communists who run China picture themselves as above the rest of society—as the best men, a superman society. They believe they are made of special materials. That is their own words. They’re elite. They tell you only what they want to tell you. So of course you will never get any clear answer about any event that happened in the past 60 years. My father, when he was sent away, never knew who made the decision, how the decision was made or why. Three hundred thousand intellectuals were crushed by a single political moment with the Cultural Revolution. None of them got a clear answer about why. Now it’s decades later, and what surprises me most is that after being in power all this time, this government should have built a better society, one that’s more open. They should trust the people. They should explain and discuss and negotiate. All those things are completely lacking in this society.
PLAYBOY: Do you assume you were freed and for the moment remain free because of pressure from the international community?
AI: Maybe if the government could get away with it, without anyone knowing, you would not see me again.
PLAYBOY: Is it gratifying to know that Hillary Clinton and other world leaders called for your release from prison?
AI: It’s very surprising. Yes, it was very good. But there are so many people arrested. And worse than arrested. Why does no one speak about them? Just yesterday the number reached 92 Tibetans who have burned themselves to death because of the Chinese oppression of Tibet. Most were Buddhist monks. I don’t see much international outcry for them. It’s a hopeless cry for them, and no one listens.
PLAYBOY: Then perhaps your celebrity saves you, the support from political leaders and other prominent people from the West. Last November Elton John shocked a Beijing audience by dedicating a concert to you. Did that surprise you?
AI: I was so happy but also shocked. Such a pure man. That’s not done; people don’t say my name out loud in public like that. The audience would never think somebody would have that kind of free, clear expression in a situation like that. It will always remain in my mind.
PLAYBOY: Do any prominent Chinese in China stand up for you and other dissidents?
AI: No. It’s too dangerous. But there are some in the young generation of artists who do. Of course they have all been taken to the police station.
PLAYBOY: While you were in prison, were you aware of the protests and calls for your release?
AI: I had no idea. I was just a little piece dropped into a dark corner, into a hole.
PLAYBOY: You didn’t know if anyone was worrying about you?
AI: No, but of course you know your family is.
PLAYBOY: Why is one man—an artist—such a threat to the government of a nation with 1.3 billion people and the second-largest economy in the world?
AI: Even to question the government can have a strong impact on its control. All my father asked for was to have a variety of expressions in literature and art. Rather than just one type of flower, he said there should be a whole garden. It’s so pitiful, because every flower deserves its own identity and has its own beauty. That simple idea is seen as a threat to the Communist leadership, which is a military-police type of leadership. They want to take away any variety of expression.