How did the Cultural Revolution affect Xinjiang?
Ai Weiwei: "The West cannot win the game"
China could become more powerful than any other country, says the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. However, Beijing will avoid a direct confrontation with the United States.
NZZ on Sunday: Mr. Ai, you have just finished films about Wuhan during the corona pandemic, the protests in Hong Kong and the Rohingya refugee camps and you cannot find a festival to show you. How so?
Ai Weiwei: I offered the film "Coronation" on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan to the festivals in Venice, Toronto and New York, and all three of them turned it down. The same thing happened to Amazon and Netflix.
With what justification?
At first they are excited that I made films about these subjects. Then they regret that they no longer have a free slot for it.
This is astonishing given the topicality of the topics.
Maybe. But the Chinese government apparatus is exerting influence. He has realized that he still has too little soft power. For twenty years he has endeavored to awaken an awareness of Chinese values in the West, whatever that is supposed to be. The rulers invest a lot of money to get into think tanks, research centers, universities and lobbies and represent Chinese interests there - which is normal. Since China is the largest market for the entertainment industry, every filmmaker, even if he comes from the independent scene, dreams of succeeding in this market. It's like a gold rush. Nobody can afford to upset China. This was fought out 15 years ago: if a festival invited a Chinese delegation and at the same time showed an independent director, the delegation canceled. The festivals reacted immediately and removed the independent directors.
How is it today
They need something called a Dragon Seal on the film, and it only gets that after passing through the Ministry of Propaganda censorship. This process is as unpredictable as a Kafka novel. There are many red lines, for example one shouldn't talk about minorities, the Cultural Revolution or certain politicians. "Coronation" is about China, the film would never have received this seal.
I was able to see the film and don't understand what is so explosive about it. It is not an accusation against China, but shows very soberly what is happening: the situation in the hospitals, the effects on people's lives. They even let an old woman speak who praised the communist party.
I try to show a balanced picture of China because I understand the country very well. And because I want China to succeed. Over a billion people live there. I want them to be fine. I always strive for balance. But it is normal for me that a film is rejected in the West too. I was born to be rejected.
What does this mean?
On the day I was born, my father was charged as an anti-revolutionary writer and exiled for 20 years. I spent the first 20 years of my life more or less completely in a very distant region. In Xinjiang, which is in the very north-west of China.
Isn't such a fate, such a sense of self, of being rejected, very uncomfortable?
Not really. I am actually the lucky one among those who are rejected. I can sit here and talk to a journalist and look at a wonderful landscape. You will never hear their voices from the vast majority of the others. On the other hand, I am fortunate to be heard; I can make my films and I will put them all online.
Where did you get the pictures from Wuhan? These are often recordings from the sterile areas of the clinics.
Employees filmed for us. A lot of things work differently in China, which is what prompted me to make the film. Society there is in many ways much less regulated than the West.
Oh yeah. That is why China is developing so quickly. It is true that one must not criticize the government in principle, nor can one vote or come together and discuss politics. But if you don't do that, almost anything is possible. People think of something and try it. That's an attitude. I made the film "Coronation" like that. I didn't know what to do with the footage until I saw it. For me, it's not about criticism, but about the most detailed analysis possible of what happened.
What do you mean by that?
On a superficial level, of course, one wonders how this disease came about and why it was initially denied. We even filmed the research centers and the live animal markets. But that wasn't relevant enough for me. We can only guess. We then left out all of the material. But what we wanted to show is how the state has built this absolute control, how people obey its restrictions. And what kind of people they are, what worries them, what really interests them. You can recognize China by these things.
Is Wuhan under Corona an example of how things are handled in China?
Nice. China is the largest nation with a very ancient history. And the Chinese Communist Party is the largest human organization that has ever existed. China has always worked the same way since 1949.
Is there any chance of change? In the film you show young people being sworn in to the Communist Party.
When a culture has developed its own language, it's like a great wall. It's very difficult to tear it down, like the Berlin Wall, for example. China has its own language, behavior and thought patterns. We call that culture. It is impressive to build such a large society in such a way that it functions like an army. I am not aware of any other case. This requires a few principles: first a dominant authoritarian group, then belief in and lack of information for the overwhelming majority of people. Strict censorship and strong propaganda. They get ridiculous at times, but they work very well in China. If you ask whether change is possible: It took a big, unimaginable event.
And what about the young Chinese who travel the world?
I just wrote a newspaper article about it for the Guardian. The US has been talking about sanctions against the Chinese for some time: If you are a member of the army and want to do research in the US, you are no longer welcome. I wrote that it happened at least 40 years too late.
Since the early 1980s, one million or more Chinese students have studied in Europe or the United States. They all belonged to the elite, almost all of them were communists, hardcore communists. They went to the best schools and universities in the US, got the most prestigious scholarships, were very intelligent, studied the US very carefully, and then went back to China. There they became the generation that built modern China and formulated the laws and rules for it. The first lesson they learned was not how American values might work, but why those values don't work in China. The influence of the West is still strong, but China is like an ink barrel: if you put a drop of milk in it, it disappears. If you add more, likewise. China has a very strong cultural weight. It goes its own way.
You have just finished a film about the protest movement in Hong Kong, which shows very soberly that there was war on the streets. Why is the Beijing government crushing these protests, why is it not complying with the agreed law, one country, two systems when it is so strong?
Hong Kong has long been mutually beneficial. The city reflects the crash between China and the West very well. You couldn't find a better model: a British colony returned to China after 150 years, a very peaceful arrangement for another 50 years, one country, two systems. In terms of its logic, that is ridiculous. But because both sides needed Hong Kong, they were happy with it. But then came the moment when China needed to put Taiwan on the agenda. The government made it very clear that it was necessary to take over Taiwan.
I beg your pardon?
This is their plan. I'm not saying she can do it. But she doesn't think for a second that she won't do that.
Is that Xi Jinping's goal?
The aim of his government, I don't even want to talk about him. Hong Kong is the first step the government is taking to show the West that it can do this. It is her country as she sees it, and there she can do what she wants. In this regard, the government is very compact. Look what happened in Hong Kong: When it comes to questions of principle, there is no room for negotiation. The government can wait for the right moment, but it won't change its plan.
So is the West blind if it hopes for peaceful coexistence?
The West has its own problems when you see what is happening in the middle of Europe today. Also in dealing with China and the USA. China thinks it is the center of the world. The name already means: country in the middle. The rulers have a clear idea of this.
Does that mean that China wants to conquer the world?
The government would never use such a word. But she thinks she will dominate the world. Conquer is a very old word. The One Belt, One Road initiative is a technical plan to avoid direct conflict. The rulers do not want a direct confrontation with the USA, they want to build their own structures and areas of influence. The party leader Mao was famous for his argument with the nationalist head of government Chiang Kai-shek. All of his opponents in the party wanted a direct confrontation. He does not. He went to the poorest regions that the central government did not care about. The nationalists wanted to control the cities: Shanghai, Nanjing and Chongqing. Mao, on the other hand, worked in the provinces to build his power and encircle the cities at the last minute. He was waiting for a good opportunity; that came when Japan used up the energy of the nationalists in war. The communists then made their revolution, took power and founded a new nation. This technique is used to this day by every generation, not just Xi Jinping. He's just clearer about his ambitions. He does it step by step, works with Africa, with Brazil, with Mexico, the Latin American countries in order to secure his own influence and resources.
We thought Mao was over.
No, Mao is never over. Qin Shihuangdi is history now. The first emperor of China came to power over 2000 years ago. He was the first to establish a Chinese empire. Mao built on him. He believed in very strong and tight control by a central government. There can be a lot of violence and brutality involved, but it works. A ruler who rules in this way can be very powerful. A democratically elected government is always weak. It has no means of violence or revolution at its disposal, and it has to stand for election every four years, sometimes even faster. And then it is only the representative of another violence. It has no comparable strategy and power.
Do you think the Chinese concept is stronger than the western democratic one?
If there is no clear break, China will become more powerful than any other country. It follows its own game. The West plays chess, China plays Go. In this concept there is no king, no rook, no knights. Everything is just a black or a white stone, all are the same, their value is determined by how big the field is that you occupy with them. They don't kill queens, they don't corner a king to win. You can understand the West with chess. There are clear rules for the movements. The runners can only move diagonally, the horses differently. If you move wrongly, you break rules. There are no such rules in Go. You can put your stone anywhere you want. As long as its point is connected to others, it remains valid. These are very different concepts. The West cannot win this game.
And where is your hope?
I have no hope. I'm just a stupid artist watching the game. Sometimes I'm frustrated, other times I'm fascinated.
Then why are you doing these films?
Because i'm alive. I am a person and an artist. To understand myself, I have to express myself. Of course I have my beliefs.
And what do you expect from us?
Not much. I put the films online and people can see what happens. In China, Hong Kong or in the Rohingya camps. A million people live there, it is the largest refugee camp. Most of us have no idea about it. When you see the people there, they are almost all very peaceful and respectful of others. Even though they are refugees, they have their rituals.
Why did you choose the Rohingya?
I visited forty camps for the film “Human Flow” and saw that the Rohingya are special. They are stateless and have always been discriminated against, murdered and disenfranchised. But there are similar problems here with the Palestinians. They are spread across different countries and have lived in camps for decades. Maybe forever. As an artist or a documentary filmmaker, I simply record the situation.
Is it the job of artists to document?
There are many different ways to be an artist. I may not be a real artist, for me rationality, knowledge, human emotions, the analysis of society, how it works and how we communicate with one another are important. That always happens in my art. It's not enough for me to just work in one cultural setting, I have to understand a lot more than that.
Do you see yourself as an activist rather than an artist?
For me they belong together. Everything I do has a political background, sometimes clearer, sometimes more hidden. I am not privileged enough not to concern myself with the political situation.
Why would that be a privilege?
There are generations that were born with no problems. You will never look for solutions. That's different for me.
Is your interest in migration related to this biographical experience that you had to grow up in exile? Do you consider yourself a homeless person, an eternal wanderer?
In my mindset, I've always been a migrant, even in my own country. We lost our home when I was born. I was sent to anti-revolutionary forces re-education camps in Xinjiang. That was many decades before these camps were mentioned in the Western media. We were the first generation to be re-educated.
What kind of camp was that?
Xinjiang is an extremely remote place where the Chinese emperors already exiled people who wanted to punish them. Those who were sent there were not allowed to come back. And the rulers in the new China also sent so-called criminals there. These camps are mostly military labor camps, which are supposed to ensure peace and quiet and then also provide workers, just as the Uyghurs are treated today. Work is seen as a method of purifying the mind and soul and has always been used in this sense by authoritarian states such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. My father was treated a little better in that his family was allowed to be with him. But many others lost their lives.
Part of it was a certain upbringing. How did you get rid of this indoctrination?
What do you mean by filed? I became acquainted with Party Chairman Mao's ideas long before I learned anything about the West.
And you still have that present.
Oh yeah. It's like a brand that ranchers used to put on their animals to mark them as their property. It just sits in the head, there it goes much deeper.
And do you still apply that thinking today?
Nice. Karl Marx is still the most important thinker of the last 150 years. His analysis of capitalism contains many fundamental ideas.
Do you see yourself as a Marxist?
No, I do not believe in his logic, but his writings contain great wisdom about the functioning of society.
How did you break free from re-education?
By getting to know different scenarios and situations in reality. That's why I'm so interested in the documentary genre. I need object lessons on modern global politics in the West and the Middle East. Outside of China. It took me years to understand. And of course I keep looking back at China. I know his illness. But I am like an old doctor and I still have to go to the mountains and find the right ingredients to mix the right medicine that can cure or poison the patient.I am traveling alone in this deep forest. Incidentally, I was just hiking with a friend in the Engadine, and you can find small plants and flowers everywhere along the paths. In China, they all have a property that traditional Chinese medicine uses. That's a nice concept: we are animals; if we eat certain things it can cure our ailments, but others make us sick.
Do you see yourself as a doctor who can cure China?
For a long time I thought I could help my country, but China is not the only patient today. The West is also very sick and has not yet found any medicine. It looks like I can't solve these problems. I have already reached the other end of my life and should be retired. There are so many patients and I became one of them.
You are 63 years old, does that change anything for you?
Oh yeah. The energy subsides. I can only make three films in three months, not ten.
Did you ever do that?
I made a lot of films in China, most of them for the internet. That was very fast.
If you look at the number of your exhibitions, books and films, one wonders how all of this comes about. What is it that keeps you going?
I have enormous curiosity and the feeling that I am walking through a narrow window of time and know so little. I have a life. This is an opportunity. But often we make so little of it. If you look at this as a game, then you're not a good player. And I want to be a good player.
A good go player?
I also played chess with my son, but after a while he didn't want to. He doesn't like the tension of a challenge. He likes the game, but he doesn't like the idea of winning or losing. I told him I could always lose, we could play halfway through a game or make ten moves and then stop. But even that doesn't interest him. He thinks that even on those ten moves I hatched something that he can't see.
Does he like life in Cambridge?
He loves to. Everything is very casual, very polite. Englishmen have this superficial courtesy. They are the opposite of Germans.
Are the Germans too direct?
No, they are trapped in certain behavior patterns. It is mostly very predictable what they will do. The English, on the other hand, are much more unpredictable. They don't say what they think. In Berlin it happened to me that I was hit by a cyclist and then yelled at and insulted just because I was walking on the street. I asked myself what kind of society it was. People are often arrogant, they want to tell you what to do and that they are right and I am wrong.
And what about the Swiss?
The good thing about Switzerland is that it is very rational and values balance. Switzerland is a small country between big players. It is still the most reliable and peaceful place in our dramatic and rapidly changing world.
You don't think that Switzerland is simply trying to get on well with everyone, doing business with China and the USA and avoiding any clarity?
But already. But she's not being aggressive about it. It tries to profit from different sides and to be open to the different political and economic actors. It's like a family. There are older siblings who have a much stronger voice and who demand more.
What position did you have in your family?
It's a little complicated. My parents had two children together, but they both had children when they got married. And among all of them I was maybe number seven or eight, I don't really know.
And how did that affect you?
Not at all. The family I grew up in wasn't really a family. In China, you don't get attached to your family. My father was considered an enemy of the state. What did that have to do with me? I was just with him, I went home to sleep in the same room. I didn't know when his birthday was, he didn't know which class I was in at the moment. We lived in a society of comrades. The only thing that mattered and was noticed was how close you were to the party. Family ties counted for nothing. They weren't worth mentioning.
Did this situation bother you as a child when your father was an enemy of the state and you couldn't be close to him?
It wasn't an unusual situation. But my family was at an extreme because my father was considered the worst anti-revolutionary writer. As a child you accept everything. Children can adapt to anything, you can be the son of a Rockefeller, President Bush or whoever.
And didn't you have any questions when you got a little older?
I never asked. I didn't have to ask because the answer was clear anyway. It's like the sea. When the tide is high, you can only see the ocean, and when the tide is low you can see the rocks on the beach. You don't ask then, the rocks are just there. Sometimes you can even find crabs. It all depends on whether it's ebb or flow.
Did you find a new relationship with your father later?
It wasn't until he had died a long time ago and I was in custody, that was in 2011. If there is anything I regret that I don't, it's why I didn't ask my father about so many things. Not a question. I'm sad about that. I suspect that many children feel the same way. They automatically accept their parents.
But I suppose your own son will ask you a lot of questions.
Yes. I then started writing my personal memoirs. I started nine years ago and have just completed the last chapter. Every day I write two to four hours, from six to eight, sometimes until ten in the morning. Then I go to the studio and work on other projects with my team.
How did your son change your life?
It helps me understand relationships a little better. Before I thought that I was alone, now I have to remember that I have responsibility. Without him and his mother, I would rather live in China, even if that would be very dangerous for me. A few years ago I wanted to tear up my passport. But a friend told me it wasn't a good idea. I didn't want to travel. Of course, that changed when I was arrested and falsely charged. That's when I realized that not only I, but also my son is at risk, and that would not be fair. I'm following in my father's footsteps.
But why would you want to live in China after all that has happened to you?
There I feel complete and functional, despite all the problems. This is due to the intimate relationship with the culture in which I grew up. Even if one is rejected outright.
The film about the Rohingya has no relation to China, but to global migration. The way you show the people in the camp is almost biblical.
Maybe. I always want to find out what people need to survive. Ultimately, it's always about humanity.
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