Ai Weiwei Discusses Life Under House Arrest

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Feb. 26 2012 7:00 AM

At Home With Ai Weiwei

Under a form of house arrest, the artist discusses his art, his politics, and his cats.

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The conditions of his release from arbitrary detention are extremely restrictive and are the same as those often used to persecute dissidents and political activists in China. He cannot leave Beijing and is required to call the secret police to let them know every time he wants to leave his house so they can follow him everywhere he goes.

“They follow me in cars and take photos of me from bushes and when I go eat in a restaurant they book the table next to me and try to record everything I’m saying,” Ai says.

He is also not supposed to do any interviews, especially with foreign reporters, who are not under the control of the oppressive, pervasive Chinese censorship regime. But Ai wants to speak up for the many supporters, far less famous than he is, who have also been subjected to persecution because of his refusal to back down or stop questioning one-party rule and abuses of power in his country.

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He talks about Liu Zhengang, his former business manager, who almost died while in detention at the same time as Ai. And he speaks with great respect for human rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, who he says lost his licence to practise law five months ago for nothing more than saying Ai’s detention was illegal.

“Police made fun of him because other lawyers have mistresses and luxury cars and make so much money but here he is doing human rights,” Ai says. “They told him they could break him and his family and make them all die.”

Just an hour or two after I leave Ai’s house I get a call telling me that the police have paid a visit with a warrant and summoned his wife to a local police station for questioning. After a few hours she is released but Ai tells me he believes she may have been called in as punishment for him speaking to the media.

“The government desperately wants this guy to be silent but when they do that they make him more popular,” Ai says, speaking in the third person about himself. “I never think I could win but I believe I have a responsibility to state the facts and be accountable to history.”

Favorite things

Everywhere you look in Ai Weiwei’s studio home there are bits and pieces of his most famous artworks – a photo of a hand pulling the finger at the White House, a bowl of porcelain sunflower seeds, some clay river crabs spilling off a plate. But when we ask him what his favorite objects are he says, with the Dadaist sense of the absurd that imbues his artwork, that his favorite objects are his cats. He says it impatiently and gives the sense that he doesn’t care much for the question but it somehow makes sense given his current circumstances. Compared with other pets, cats are generally wild, independent animals that do not like to be kept on a leash. This may be a case of reading too much into the offhand words of a great artist but those are the same characteristics most commonly attributed to Ai himself.

For a video of Ai Weiwei at home, go to www.ft.com/aiweiwei.