PLAYBOY: How does free speech threaten them? They’re firmly in control.
AI: If people question—if people don’t accept what they tell us—maybe the leaders will have to go. It’s like during the research we did after the earthquake to find out who was missing. We simply wanted to know the names of the victims. We asked the government for their names, ages and which school they went to. We made 200 phone calls to government officials. They wouldn’t release any information. I built up my anger and frustration. One by one we found the students’ names, all the information related to them. We interviewed hundreds of parents. It was a very painful research study.
PLAYBOY: Why would that threaten the government? Why would officials not want the names released?
AI: Maybe they worried that if people knew, they’d question the bad construction of the structures, the schools and buildings that collapsed. That can have some political impact. Next the people ask, “Who’s responsible?”
PLAYBOY: Your efforts to learn who died in the earthquake resulted in a list of the names of 5,000 students.
AI: Fifty-two hundred.
PLAYBOY: You then made an international statement about the earthquake by creating a facade on a Munich museum comprising 9,000 children’s backpacks. What were you trying to communicate?
AI: The backpacks spelled out the words of a mother whose daughter was one of the students killed. The mother said, “She lived happily for seven years in this world.” People should not forget this, and the government does not want it to be remembered.
PLAYBOY: Where were you when you heard about the earthquake?
AI: In Beijing, and even in Beijing we could feel it a little bit.
PLAYBOY: What was your reaction when you heard of the magnitude?
AI: I was stunned. Speechless. Back in 2005 some people had created a blog for me. I realized it was a great opportunity to try to write something. I have always admired people who write. My father was a writer. He wrote very clearly what was in his mind. I think writing is a beautiful skill. I needed to learn, because I never had a chance when I grew up in the Cultural Revolution, when the whole education system failed. So I felt frustrated, and here was this beautiful tool to write and communicate.
At the beginning I was just putting photos of my artwork on the blog and writing a little. Then I realized I could talk about the social conditions. Each morning I read the newspaper, and there would always be quite a few points to talk about. I’m a person who has many opinions on everything. People always tell me, “Oh, you just want to argue.” Yes, I want to argue, because everything should be argued. Because nobody else in China argues, my arguments become relevant. Suddenly my blog became very popular, because nobody was so openly talking about those things. I wrote every day, day and night, but when the earthquake came I was speechless and couldn’t write a word for seven days. It was such a big tragedy. I could not write anything.
PLAYBOY: Why did you begin collecting the names of earthquake victims?
AI: Since they didn’t release the names, I must. Every day I put our new findings of names that we collected on the blog. It could be one, it could be 20. So many people were reading it. They all had the same questions: Why is this artist doing this by himself? Why isn’t the government doing this? What kind of government do we have? That really shook the foundation of this government, because they knew nobody would trust them.
PLAYBOY: Did the government ask you to stop posting the names?
AI: Day after day I did this until one day almost a year later, 2009, a very high-up official called and said, “Weiwei, can you stop?” I said, “Well, it’s a little too late. I have to find the last person’s name, and that is the only way I can stop.” I said, “But there is one way for me to stop, and that is if you start to announce those names. Why can’t you do it? I mean, once you do it, then I don’t have to do it. It’s not my job. It’s not a particularly happy moment when I do that.” But of course they would not do it.
PLAYBOY: The earthquake occurred the same year as the Beijing Olympics. Why did you object to the Olympics, one of China’s proudest moments, especially after your prominent role as co-designer of the Bird’s Nest stadium, the focal point of the Games?
AI: In 2007, one year before the opening, they began a so-called countdown to the Olympics. I saw this celebration on a friend’s television. The whole show brought up memories of growing up under the Communists. They were trying to glamorize the Communist Party. Also, they were already tightening security in Beijing for the Olympics. It was becoming like a police state. They sent all the vagrants out of the city. They took away the visas from all the students who worked in the city. You could see so clearly that all they wanted was to throw a glamorous party for the benefit of the foreign media and for the world to see the power of the Communist Party. They were trying to tell the world, “We are the same as you.” But actually they were saying, “We have more. We can do something you can never do. You could never do this grand Olympics.” It made me disgusted. A journalist called and asked if I watched it. I said yes, and he asked, “How do you feel about it?” I said, “I’m disgusted,” and he asked, “Will you be part of a celebration?” I said no. They published the next day that the Olympic stadium designer was boycotting the games.
PLAYBOY: Weren’t you proud of the Bird’s Nest, which received worldwide acclaim?
AI: I’m proud of the architecture. I love it, but I hated the way it was going to be used. I hate the way it was used.
PLAYBOY: When you openly criticized the Olympics, were you chastised or asked to get with the program?
AI: No. The government people will never tell you directly, never show their feelings. It’s like a whole table of poker players. They hate you to death, but it’s like, “We’ll get you later,” because they know they will get you later.
PLAYBOY: You once said that your generation has to do better than your father’s generation in its efforts to change China, because his “didn’t do a good job.” What did you mean?
AI: They sacrificed so much but did not achieve anything.
PLAYBOY: What has changed between then and now that makes you think you can do better?
AI: It’s a different time. China was very isolated. Now China is trying to be global, so there’s an opening and a chance to use a higher standard. And there’s the internet.
PLAYBOY: How significant is the internet?
AI: Without the internet, no person could say anything and be heard. Now everyone can know about the earthquake. Everyone can know about a person they put in prison. No, it’s not that everyone can know, actually, because the government controls the internet very well. But some people can know. It’s a small group, because they must know how to get around the firewall.
PLAYBOY: How dangerous is it to defy the government’s regulations and use the internet for political discourse or to organize political campaigns?
AI: Very dangerous. Most people on the internet use fake names. They don’t reveal their identities. But of course if they want, the government can find out very easily who they are.
PLAYBOY: Your blog was shut down, but now you’re on Twitter. How do you manage to use Twitter, which is blocked in China behind the Great Firewall?
AI: After they shut off my blog, a guy said, “I can set you up on Twitter.” He said, “You have to use special equipment.”
PLAYBOY: A proxy server?
PLAYBOY: How does Twitter serve your purposes?
AI: Twitter is better than a blog. It’s faster. It’s interesting because of the fast communication—the immediate person-to-person response. Also, everybody is watching. It becomes like a school, like Buddhist teaching or Zen teaching. There is a sharing of ideas. You know people. The people know me as well as anybody in my family.
PLAYBOY: Do you ever feel frustrated by the Twitter limit of 140 characters?
AI: In Chinese, 140 characters is not like 140 characters in English. In Chinese, you can write the whole history of one dynasty in 140 characters. It’s so meaningful for us. It’s very poetic, because one line can jump from one subject to another and sometimes it’s five subjects mixed together. It is so effective. I have 200,000 followers. If everyone in China could get on Twitter, I would have a minimum of 2 million. Today those who follow me are all technical people or people who are dedicated to the political.
PLAYBOY: They took down your blog. Why haven’t they stopped you from using Twitter? Even though you have techies helping you and you use a proxy server, it would seem the government, with a reported 50,000 internet police, could intercept your tweets.
AI: They always try to stop it. They cannot do it. It is very difficult. They can shut off one kind of connector, but we build another one.
PLAYBOY: Was there any warning before your blog disappeared?
AI: In 2009, before June 4, an official asked me, “Can you promise not to write anything?” The government always gets nervous on this date.