Ai Weiwei Speaks Out on His Detention

Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei at his studio compound in Beijing. Adam Dean for Newsweek

Seven months ago, Chinese police detained the country's most prominent artist, Ai Weiwei, at the airport and drove him to a hidden location. It was the beginning of a two-and-a-half-month nightmare for the architect and sculptor, a former darling of the Communist Party turned outspoken government critic. Ai was held on vague -charges of economic crimes, kept in isolation, and submitted to Kafka-esque interrogations. Determined to maintain his wits, Ai tried to memorize every detail of his detention. "But after 20 days, my brain became completely empty," he says, disclosing the fullest account yet of the grim conditions of his confinement. Cut off from the outside world, in a featureless cell, his mind began to panic. "I realized you need information to stay alive. When there's no information, you're already dead. It's a very, very strong test—I think more severe than any physical punishment," Ai says.

Desperate for interaction, Ai began to needle the guards to provoke a response. But they "just sat and stared at me with no expression. They were very young, and clean, and emotionless, like you were not there," he says. With nothing to do, Ai paced back and forth in his cell, covering some 600 miles and losing almost 30 pounds during his 81 days of confinement. "All I wanted was a dictionary, even the simplest one." Passing the time was "impossible," he says. "I really wished someone could beat me. Because at least that's human contact. Then you can see some anger. But to dismiss emotion, to be cut off from any reason, or anger, or fear, psychologically that's very threatening."

Since his release, Ai has been hesitant to go public with details about his imprisonment, other than to crack jokes about how it helped reduce his famous bulk. One friend says Ai is much more intense than before. Ai himself won't elaborate on how the experience changed him, or on how it influenced his creative work, only saying, "I know what it's like inside. It's like a dark world."

In part, Ai's reticence is a condition of his release; he says the government has warned him not to speak publicly about his ordeal. But, Ai says, "I cannot bear the condition where something happens to me and I don't respond." Since getting out of detention, Ai has resumed his denunciations of the state on Twitter and on his frequently shuttered Weibo account, and the government has responded by slapping him with a charge of owing $2.4 million in back taxes for a company he doesn't even run.

Ai and his supporters say that the charges are a strong-arm tactic to silence the artist. "The police said clearly, the day before they gave the fine, 'Weiwei,' they said, 'you should not have illusions. If the nation announces you have a tax problem, you have a tax problem,'" Ai recalls. If the artist fails to pay the money, he's received threats that his wife and associates will end up in jail. "And they know I would never let that happen. So the game is, they know me."

"They follow you around until you have no energy and break down. It's very successful. It's a hundred departments, you can't fight them," he says. "You should commit suicide before you have to go through this ... the tax bureau and the court and the police are the same person with different faces. You know this from the beginning. If you play a chess game, and play two or three moves, they throw the board away."

Ai's latest move has been to take his ordeal public. After learning of the taxes he allegedly owed, Ai used Google+ to post instructions on how netizens could loan him money, adding that "every cent will be returned." The response has been overwhelming; within the first week, he received more than $1 million from tens of thousands of people. Supporters have flocked to his Beijing studio to offer help. A stranger folded a note worth 15 cents into a paper airplane and floated it into Ai's compound. Two others drove by on a motorbike and tossed a ball of 100-yuan notes into the yard. One 26-year-old student, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said she had traveled for 22 hours to see him. "I'm terrified to be here," she said, "But I wanted Ai Weiwei to know that when he was imprisoned we didn't forget about him."

"It's beautiful to know that people still have the desire to speak out," Ai says. "This demonstrates how people support us. They have never had a channel to express themselves."

Ai has found supporters in surprising places—even in detention. Some of the guards, he said, "don't believe what they see either. They keep saying, 'I'm just doing my job.' Even the first person interviewing me said, 'I have to do my job very strictly. But you can always answer, 'I don't know, I don't remember.' I thought, 'Wow, this is one of my guys here,'?" Ai says. One interrogator apologized: "?'Gosh, maybe you're well known, but I don't know you. Sorry, I'm a bit embarrassed. I had to go online and check you out.'?"

Even though Ai appears to be occasionally overwhelmed by the outpouring of support—on a recent weekend, he ducked out of his studio, saying, "With so many people around, I can't stick around"—he is a man who thrives on interconnectivity. After being released in June, "one of the first things he did was try to reconnect to the grid," says Urs Meille, a Swiss gallery owner who represents Ai and who has known the artist since 1997. "Information, exchange, it's so essential to him."

"Conversations, answering people's questions, makes me relax," Ai confirms. "I spent a lot of time on the Internet, reading people's commentary, people's discussions."

Two weekends ago in Ai's studio, the artist seemed to always be on his phone or on the computer. Assistants, friends, and other artists drifted in and out of the compound, which is also home to Ai's wife, Lu Qing; several cats; and an extremely overweight dog named Danny. "Ai almost never listens to music, but it's never quiet; there are always people around," says Lu. Ai had on a faded old blue Gap coat and neon-green sneakers. "Ai doesn't care too much about what he's wearing, as long as it's big and cotton," says Lu. He focuses intently on his communiqués; he estimates spending six hours a day on the computer. "Without Twitter, it's just like I'm not a person," Ai says. "I've already sent out more than 60,000 tweets." He points to a giant stack of paper on his desk, in which his tweets are being edited into a book. "That is only half of them." Ai has written more than a million words on Twitter. Two days before he was detained in April, someone tweeted back: "Ai, be a bit heartless and immigrate." Ai responded, "I'm Chinese, this is my land."

Not that Ai could escape even if he wanted to. He's been barred from leaving Beijing, and his house is probably bugged. He has to check in at the local police station at least once a week. The police "used to come to my house, but there were too many people around," he says. "Then they asked me to 'drink tea,'?" a euphemism for an informal chat. "I said, 'No, I don't drink tea with you guys.' Then it has to be in the station. And of course, in the station, they can be another person, they can be crazy. But this is my life."

Ai believes the world shares responsibility for what's happening in China, and he wants to force the international community to pay attention. "Today, the West feels very shy about human rights and the political situation. They're in need of money. But every penny they borrowed or made from China has really come as a result of how this nation sacrificed everybody's rights," he says. "With globalization and the Internet, we all know it. Don't pretend you don't know it. The Western politicians—shame on them if they say they're not responsible for this. It's getting worse, and it will keep getting worse."

While he continues to fight the tax charge, Ai has to decide on his next step and try to gauge how long he has until the government cracks down on him again. Last week one of China's Foreign Ministry spokespeople said, "No matter what actions the person concerned is taking, it cannot change the fact that Ai Weiwei has evaded lots of taxes." The Global Times—an ardently pro-government newspaper—wrote an article referring to Ai's conduct as "illegal fundraising." People say, "Just pay it rather than go through court," Ai says of the fine. "Most people would give up. [But] I have to fight for my own honor. Keep my integrity."

Ai has posted the tax documents from his case on Google+ and has called for the government to release information on the accusations, although he doesn't expect it to comply. He's also well aware of what might await him if he's taken away again. "They clearly tell you, 'You have no rights,'?" he says. He mentions the case of his friend and lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, who was detained for a few days in April, in part because of his connection with Ai. "When he was nude, [they] kicked him on his body. They said ... 'What can you do about it?' We have no right procedures. So they beat him and said, 'I will break your whole family. Your wife will leave you, your son will not recognize you, and people will die in your family. Just trust me,'?" Ai says. "Why does he have to bear this? This is absolutely above and beyond any kind of measured reaction. [This is] a state, a police, doing that, and encouraged by the system to crack down by any means necessary."

Despite the threat of reprisal, Ai will likely keep speaking out and encouraging his fellow citizens and foreign governments to take action. Ai sees his crusade as "a way to tell the whole society and the government that no one should use the law as revenge to destroy someone who holds different ideas. To destroy artists who freely express themselves, by using this kind of dirty trick." If a country resorts to silencing its people with sham laws, he says, "this kind of nation has no future, if things like this happen. Aesthetically, morally, you've already failed. You win the battles, because you have power, but you've lost the war."