“For 81 days last spring and summer, Ai Weiwei was China’s most famous missing person. Detained in Beijing while attempting to catch a flight to Hong Kong on April 3, Ai, an artistic consultant for the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium, was held almost entirely incommunicado and interrogated some 50 times while friends and supporters around the world petitioned for his release. On Nov. 1, Ai, who says the case against him is politically motivated, was hit with a $2.4 million bill for back taxes and penalties. Two weeks later, he paid a $1.3 million bond with loans from Chinese supporters who contributed online and in person and even tossed cash over the walls of his studio in northeast Beijing.
The son of a revolutionary poet, Ai, 54, has grown more outspoken in recent years, expressing his anger at abuses of power and organizing online campaigns, including a volunteer investigation into the deaths of children in schools that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. His detention came amid a broad crackdown on activists by the Chinese government meant to stamp out a call for Arab Spring–inspired pro-democracy protests as well as continuing unrest in the Tibetan regions, where 12 people have set themselves on fire since March to protest Chinese policies.
Ai, who speaks excellent if not quite flawless English, sat down on Dec. 12 with TIME’s Hannah Beech and Austin Ramzy — and a calico cat, one of nearly two dozen cats and dogs at his studio — to discuss his detention, the poetry of Twitter and whether China is immune to the global forces of protest and revolution. [...]
If you had a chance to go overseas, would you?
I have to evaluate, Is it better to stay in a jail here or go abroad? If you go, you really have to say goodbye.
You feel you wouldn’t be allowed back?
Not only that. I’m afraid I would lose the sensitivity to this reality. There are so many things you can do in life, and of course, activist isn’t my top choice. I think I would lose touch with here, and I certainly feel I owe a lot of people. If I can make a good effort, I would continue to do that.”
“Twelve months ago, Ai Weiwei was a celebrated artist, whose Sunflower Seeds had just opened at Tate Modern to widespread acclaim.
Today he is as famous for the 81 days he spent in detention this spring as for his work. In attempting to silence him, the Chinese authorities appear to have amplified his voice.
His sudden disappearance, as he passed through immigration at Beijing airport on 3 April, shocked even the friends who had feared such a moment. His high profile, and his revered late father – the poet Ai Qing – had offered him some protection until then. Human rights groups say his detention showed that no one was immune.
It prompted a global outpouring of outrage that he admits startled even him. “I never imagined it could happen. I think it shows we are in a very different time – through the internet, the media. I had communicated so often with the outside world and made it very clear what was in my mind,” he says. [...]
There is no sign of the tensions easing: at the end of November, police questioned Ai’s wife. Many of the artist’s friends fear he may be detained again; perhaps, this time, for years.
“I do worry. All the time. But it doesn’t help,” he says. He knows that he could lose the thing he values most – his freedom.
“Every day I think about [the lawyers and activist] Gao Zhisheng and Chen Guangcheng and Hu Jia, who have been crushed and beaten. But somebody has to bear responsibility.
“I have a chance to talk to you. Millions of people in their lives can never even clearly state their life and emotions and will die in this darkness.”"
The documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry to premiere at 2012 Sundance Film Festival!