An exhibit for outspoken Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei opened in Washington this week, but it is unclear whether he will be able to attend the important retrospective of his works. Authorities in China have stripped him of his passport and he is under close surveilance.
These days, Ai Weiwei's name seems to be coming up everywhere. Everywhere that is, except China.
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Overseas, his art and activism are the focus of a documentary about his life Ai Weiwei, Never Sorry, and the first U.S. survey of his work went on display Sunday at the Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington D.C.
In China, it is almost as if he does not exist.
“Even my name cannot be mentioned in China," lamented the artist. "I have such a big tax case and yet there is no mention of the case in any articles, not even a sentence discussing the case. This is not normal, this is very abnormal, but it seems like such unnatural phenomenon are increasing.
Tax evasion charges
Last year, authorities charged him with tax evasion after detaining him without charges for nearly three months.
Chinese authorities deny Ai's detention was politically motivated, and recently rejected his second and final appeal to the tax evasion charges he and his supporters say are retaliation for his outspoken activism.
“All we can say is that there is a widespread feeling of impotence [in China], a lack of sense of responsibility and a feeling of despair because as a citizen and as an individual when you feel cut off from justice and fairness, and you do not think that you can be of help to others, and you do not think that other people's suffering or happiness has anything to do with you, this is a horrifying society,” Ai said.
Chinese authorities have stripped him of his passport, making it impossible for him to travel to the exhibit in the United States.
“Why they do not give me my passport or why they do not let me go abroad is unclear. All I know is that they have said that they will definitely give it to me, and it is just a matter of time," Ai said. "So I hope that in the next few months they will give it to me.”
For now, he can travel around the country, which he says he does at times. And while visitors to his studio come and go, his minders are always not far behind and close at hand. The street outside his studio in Beijing is lined with surveillance cameras, one aimed straight at its front door.
Ai is best known for helping to design the main stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Bird's Nest. But his activism has drawn increasing attention, and at times international concern when he has gotten into trouble with authorities.
Ai became increasingly critical of the Chinese government following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when he took up the cause of the thousands of children who were killed when their shoddily built schools collapsed.
Despite the attention authorities give him, he says there is really nothing special about what he does.
“The police say to me, 'Ai Weiwei, you talk to much, you have got a bad mouth.' I think that while most people do not ask questions, or they are not willing, or they do not dare or they do not want to ask questions, or even do not think that there is a problem at all, I will speak my mind," he said. "As an artist or even just someone who cares about society, I think that what I do is very basic. There is really nothing special about what I do."
Ai says his comments may sometimes be critical of national issues or politics, but they are just his own opinions and really nothing a nation should fear. If it does, he adds, that is only a sign of the nation's weakness.