Due in no small part to media idolization of him as an artist-dissident, Ai Weiwei’s unwavering criticism of the Chinese government frequently comes off as a narrow, personal fight. However, in this interview in English with Radio Open Source’s Christopher Lydon, the outspoken artist refreshingly talks about broader issues in contemporary Chinese society.
Of the country’s population born after the economic reform in the late 1970s, he says they are “more liberal, open, and much better informed” despite censorship and in “a very different world than its government,” echoing similar sentiments by Evan Osnos that the government is out of step with its people. Challenging a common Western misperception about Chinese people, he believes they have “space to make their own choice or decision” and is also hopeful that the Chinese who study abroad will make a strong impact on China’s future.
This optimism is necessary to fight his dismay at China’s current status. Lydon’s awe of China’s development (“Do you know how good the country looks from the train?”) strikes a nerve with Ai Weiwei:
“Nobody can ignore China has been going through really fast developing [sic] and made a lot of progress. Of course it’s a very powerful state. I don’t see any other state making this dramatic change. There’s some kind of credit there, but when we talk about change, there are few thing we have to mention. For whom is this change made for? What kind of society and what kind of people we are preparing this for? And how this change has been made and at what cost?”
To him, the cost is the foundations of Chinese culture, and the result is a national and individual malaise. The country now is a “vacuum” where people are “not encouraged to have any meaningful discussion” and where “there are no profound ideas or sound argument [people] can relate to.” You buy everything. You can build everything. But how do you build the human spirit, how you make young people feel hope, have energy, imagination, energy?…Those are inner human structures.”
Lydon continues his enthusiasm, “Doing things, getting results…this does look to me as a kind of top down social revolution and people are getting real benefits,” and this time is more strongly rebuked:
“Well, that’s your picture…what is the bottom line? It’s the whole development to healthy society, meaningful beliefs or something we are working for as a nation which really become a better society. Those can never even be discussed. Chairman Mao always painted this beautiful picture for people said ‘If there’s no Communists, there’s no new China.’ This is their slogan. And now even the West believes it. This is typical bullshit. What’s the new China?”
His harshest words are reserved for a symbol of new China, Shanghai, calling it “the worst of society model” where people “worship any material life, but they refuse to talk about anything.” Shanghai will never be a capital of any kind of creativity. It’s just impossible for those people, this kind of mentality. they’re the kind of people who want to take advantage of the modern world…”
The epilogue to the interview reveals surprisingly myopic reactions to Ai Weiwei’s thoughts by two Chinese assistants (i.e., handlers) who accompanied Lydon to the interview. They are Party faithful who are thankful that China is better off now than it was before the 1949 revolution and who probably would have liked to hear Ai Weiwei talk about food or sex as he, worried that he was a complainer, thought he maybe should have.
Visit the Radio Open Source interview page for their brief summary of the interview and a link to download the interview as a podcast.
Image: Straight from Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Andrew Shiue