Ai Weiwei: 'China in many ways is just like the middle ages'

In his last interview before being detained, the artist described the constant surveillance by the authorities of him and others

Two days before Ai Weiwei's disappearance, the artist spoke out about police surveillance and harassment at his Beijing studio, and warned that "people with different minds and voices are being thrown into prison".

Describing the scrutiny he had been receiving from the authorities, he said: "There are two surveillance cameras at my gate entrance, my phone is tapped and every message I send on my microblog is censored.

"Yesterday and the day before over a dozen police came to my place, but in my opinion, it is purely nuisance. They are coming again today," he said, speaking to German broadcaster ARD in his last interview before he was stopped by officials at Beijing airport.

"China in many ways is just like the middle ages. China's control over people's minds and the flow of information is just like the time before the Enlightenment," he said.

Presciently he added: "Writers, artists, and commentators on websites are detained or thrown into jail when they reflect on democracy, opening up, reform and reason," he said. "This is the reality of China."

Ai became the most prominent victim of the toughest Chinese crackdown on dissent in a decade when he was detained earlier this month. Western powers and groups of artists have called for the release of the artist, whose whereabouts is still unknown.

In the interview Ai deplored the constraints on freedom of expression, saying that "every piece of news in China is controlled by the ministry of propaganda". But he insisted he wanted to stay in China. "Unless I have absolutely no other choice, like my life being threatened, I will not leave here because I belong here and there is no reason for me to leave."

"The only thing I can do in China is go on the internet; however my name is a sensitive word on the internet in China, and my name cannot be shown on Chinese websites. So working conditions are very bad."

In a separate interview with Time Out London on 12 April, conducted shortly before his arrest, Ai spoke of his fears of imprisonment.

"I am afraid of jail, but my father was a poet [Ai Qing, 1910-1996]. I don't admire him much as a poet, but I do admire him when in his early 20s he was sentenced to six years, and then later exiled for 20 years in really the worst situation, cleaning the public toilets, and yet he survived.

"So if I think about my father, I think: this was really a strong soul, a poet, who accepted a kind of jail, a human condition. It's a statement, you know? This is how I try to make myself understand what would happen in jail. But nobody really knows what happens."

He described his role as a prominent dissident who has used the web, especially microblogging site Twitter, to communicate with young people in China. "They say: 'This guy is established and has possibilities, but he is standing for me in criticising the current situation and wants it changed.' So my situation gives people hope through the impenetrable darkness. People have been sick of this situation, some for several generations, and have developed a total hopelessness."

The constant surveillance by the authorities, he said, "always shows the weakness of their power. It's so pitiful, you don't even want to say it: their lacking confidence, their lacking skill in communication, their refusal to discuss any matter intellectually. [The Communist party] must have an enemy. They have to create you as their enemy in order for them to continue their existence. It's very ironic."

Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds, the current Turbine Hall installation at Tate Modern, is showing until 2 May. The building has become the focus of demonstrations of support for the artist, with the words "Release Ai Weiwei" prominently displayed from the lightbox at the top of the building that is usually reserved for publicising exhibitions. On Sunday Chinese artists and British supporters laid pictures of sunflower seeds bearing the names of 50 detained Chinese dissidents and artists on the grass outside the gallery.

Major exhibitions of Ai's work are due to open at Somerset House and Lisson Gallery in London in May.


Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer

The GuardianTramp

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