Renowned artist Ai Weiwei, admired in the West but renounced in his native China, is chairing this year’s Geneva Human Rights Film Festival (FIFDH) jury, in spite of not being allowed to leave his country.
Now in its 11th year, the film festival and international forum on human rights is championing artists “who stand on the front line in the fight against autocratic regimes, obscurantist forces and injustice,” according to festival director Léo Kaneman. The evening of March 7 is devoted to the current protest movements in China, including those of Weiwei.
In an interview with swissinfo.ch in Beijing, the dissident spoke of the difficulties he faces in his country, and pledged that only his disappearance would silence him.
swissinfo.ch: Thanks to the internet you can chair the jury of the Film Festival and Forum for Human Rights in Geneva (FIFDH), despite being barred from leaving China. Have you been told why you are still not free to leave?
Ai Weiwei: The FIFDH of Geneva extended me the honour of inviting me to be a member of the jury. The fundamental rights of all citizens includes the freedom to travel and communicate. Today, my rights are restricted. Neither the police nor the government gave me clear explanations when I was imprisoned, stigmatised and today barred from travelling. I have never clearly been told why.
But all those constraints have had a big impact on my personal life and my creativity. It has forced me to find a new approach.
swissinfo: How does it feel to be subjected to a travel ban?
A.W.: If I could have gone to Geneva, the direct communication with the other members of the jury and with the organisers of all those activities connected to human rights would without doubt have been an inspiration for me.
Therefore, restricting the freedom of an artist in this way acts to suppress his influence and makes communication between the artist and society impossible. But at the same time, from a more positive perspective, it is a dilemma of a new kind which encourages me to find new ways and a new language to overcome it.
Ai Weiwei, the dissident
Son of a well-known poet renounced under Mao, Ai Weiwei – age 55 –is certainly the most provocative, the most rebellious, but also the most well-known contemporary Chinese artist.
His creations are exhibited all over the world, notably in Switzerland, where he maintains a close relationship with the former ambassador and collector Uli Sigg.
From 2005 to 2008, working with Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron, Weiwei conceived of the Bird’s Nest, the renowned Olympic Stadium in Beijing, but shortly afterward he called for a boycott.
In 2008, he launched an internet campaign denouncing the Chinese government’s silence following tens of thousands of deaths due to an earthquake in Sichuan. He expressed his indignation in the face of what he referred to as “schools made of tofu”, which collapsed like houses of cards because the money for their construction had made its way into the pockets of corrupt officials.
The activist has suffered from repression under the regime: beatings, imprisonment, condemnation, house arrest. The more he is repressed, the more his international notoriety seems to increase.
One of the most quoted artists of his generation, Ai Weiwei has become the symbol of the resistance of the Chinese people in the face of a powerful government that is being increasingly criticised.
swissinfo.ch: The Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jibao has just declared before parliament that China should intensify the promotion of culture. Do you believe that?
A.W.: I did not follow the speech of Prime Minister Wen, because fine words with no meaning tire me greatly. I believe that they have been telling us the same lies for 60 years, repeating themselves incessantly, without the slightest discomfort.
The entire cultural policy of the party is a negation of culture. It is opposed to humanity. It fundamentally limits citizens’ freedom of expression.
Today, because the young do not have the liberty to express or inform themselves, they have neither passion nor imagination. In a society like that, how could they generate a creative power?
Lies! These are lies and everyone knows it well.
Or else they generate a loathsome creativity. Today China produces what it calls “remarkable achievements”, to which the creativity and imagination of the nation are sacrificed. We live in a modern slave society, which dreams of power and wealth and denies the concept of a spiritual civilisation.
swissinfo.ch: The new strongman of China – Xi Jinping – displays an apparent will for change. Is this real or feigned?
A.W.: Any rational observer who looks at China today will soon reach the conclusion that under this regime, because there is a lack of real will for change, all the claimed reforms will remain impossible.
It doesn’t matter who takes power; it will always be like that because the leaders are always the product of the system and will not undertake anything which opposes the very ethical principles of that system.
Therefore all hope ends up bursting like a soap bubble.
swissinfo.ch: Some claim that without substantial political reform, the Chinese Communist Party could collapse within five years.
A.W.: No party, no regime which scorns the fundamental values of human beings should exist; it should not disappear within five years but before five years. But the Chinese situation regularly surprises everyone.
When a regime does not enjoy legitimate power, when it makes its territory and citizens pay the price of keeping it in power, how is the country supposed to renew itself? It’s a very worrisome question. It is true that we do not foresee a day of reckoning. But we constantly feel that [collapse of the party] could happen at any moment. That’s where we are today.
swissinfo.ch: When you designed the Olympic Stadium in Beijing, you were admired and acclaimed in China. Then you became more and more critical and provocative, and the troubles began. Are you not afraid for your safety?
A.W.: As an architect, I never benefited from any sort of protection. It was the Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron who invited me to participate in the conception of the Bird’s Nest [Beijing Olympic Stadium]. China never invites anyone in particular to take part in state projects.
Anyway, I never engage in deliberate provocation. I content myself with asking simple questions. For example, if I lose my cat, I will ask where my cat has gone. I did the same when so many people were killed after [the Sichuan 2008] earthquake. I asked where all those dead children went, why their school collapsed, why it was so badly built. I think everyone owes it to themselves to ask questions. Not to do it is to risk disaster.
As for whether I will have even more problems in the future, I can assure everybody: no! My troubles are already sufficiently heavy to carry. I think that the worst thing that could happen to me would be to disappear. But that would be the lesser evil, because I never really existed in this base world. It is just a coincidence that I currently find myself here.
(Translated from French by Clare O'Dea)