Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei joins CFR’s Jerome A. Cohen to discuss art, politics, and China's future. Ai shares his eighty-one-day-detention experience and discusses issues regarding freedom of speech, human rights, and political activism in China.
COHEN: Well, welcome to today’s Council session. It should be a stimulating conversation.
I first met our guest of honor when he was just a new boy in New York struggling with the art world. Must have been 1985. He was introduced by my wife, who’s here, Joan Lebold Cohen. But he was just one of a number of young Chinese artists who were coming to New York as part of the new freedom that Deng Xiaoping had brought to China. And he learned a lot about America and then, of course, went back for a great career. My son Ethan, who’s here, has been his friend since—well, over 30 years.
But I paid little attention to Ai Weiwei until—(laughter)—almost a decade ago. He started to get into politics. I started to read about him in the paper, and I began to get worried because he was sticking his neck out in an area where necks don’t last very long. And I remember we had lunch in 2010 in Beijing. And I said Weiwei, who’s protecting you? How do you get away with this?
And he said: Nobody is protecting me, but the authorities don’t know it and they’re not willing to take a chance. (Laughter.)
Well, that sounded pretty good until the next year. On April 3rd, 2011, he was at the Beijing airport en route to Hong Kong and then going to Taiwan for an exhibition of his work, and he got locked up.
And what was so astounding was how quickly the world took note of this. I was cleaning up my study at home yesterday. I came on a huge pile of documents, all from April 2011, all recording the world’s concern.
Within hours, not only the State Department in this country but the foreign ministers of the U.K., France, and Germany all personally made an appeal to the Chinese government to release Weiwei. And of course, none of us knew what had happened to him. He was held 81 days. It was a total violation of due process. But as in all things in life, he’s made a great thing out of it. (Laughter.)
And I want to start by asking Weiwei, what has been the impact of your detention? You were protesting when you came out, of course, arbitrary detention of the person. You were protesting against a lack of transparency in the government after the earthquake when you revealed, despite government efforts to conceal it, the corruption that underlay the death of many thousands of children. You were expressing concerns about property being confiscated, including your own in Shanghai.
But what has been the impact on you of this terrible experience of 81 days of incommunicado detention?
AI: First, thank you for me having a chance to speak to you. And while we were walking in, this gentleman told me I just have to speak louder. (Laughter.) OK. My voice is not very loud, but I try.
And the impact, if I think about this detention—of course there’s many, many impacts psychologically or even physically. But the most important opportunity come out is I can get in very close to the—to the state. You know, you really touches the tooth, or you’re in the mouth. And you really sense this kind of flavor.
And they’re also getting to know me better. So I figure this is the—still, it’s a communication, even—this is something I always wanted, to have some kind of communication, to have some talk. But while I was just detained, I have—in the first hours, even I was—my head was still in this black hood. You know, I was carried from airport, driving around.
So the only thing in my mind is, should I start to talk with them or just keeping silent? Because I have been thinking that for a long time. So—but it is my practice on internet—I decide I will not keep silent. I will talking to them, you know, to answer their questions and then trying to communicate.
And I don’t know if I did it successfully or not. As a result, I was released after 81 days. May not come from anything—any effort I made, but still have over 50 interrogations. And I talked to many, many officers. You know, every day I’d just—waiting them to come in and talk to me.
COHEN: You made friends with some of them, didn’t you?
AI: Well, they’re state police. They become very friendly, but you cannot call them a friend—(laughter)—you know, because—yeah, it’s true. You know, I think of—you know, they’re all communist members, and they—by joining the party, you’re not supposed to be friends. The word “friend” doesn’t exist anymore. So even—they cannot—they’re leaders or they’re families—
COHEN: I remember we had dinner in Beijing after your release with your lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang. And at the next table was this single secret police person. I never felt sorrier for anybody in my life because you kept photographing him and going after him. (Laughter.) This poor guy couldn’t get a bite to eat because you and Pu were really harassing him. It reminded me when you broke into the police station in Chengdu after they beat you up and you were released. The poor policeman at the desk—he didn’t know what to do with you. And you were videoing the whole thing.
It was—I’ve seldom felt sorry for the Chinese police.
AI: Actually, I’m in most vulnerable situation. And they appear to be vulnerable, but they’re a big state. You know, they just—as a single police, they cannot take action because they have to listen to their leaders. They cannot really—so I take the opportunity to be—to be—appear very, you know, passionate or strong or—but I know, you know, this is not possible; it’s just—there’s little space. I maximized to use that space.
COHEN: Well, you did some outrageous things before they locked you up.
AI: Yeah. (Laughter.)
COHEN: You gave the finger to the Communist Party of China in public. You were photographed, but I haven’t seen anybody who expressed such open contempt. And I thought, this is not going to last. (Laughter.)
AI: You’re right. And that’s also what they told me. They said, you’re—they couldn’t find words of what you did. You know, you should be—you can be killed a hundred times if—in the old time. And—but still, you know, I think because I did so much, maybe they think I’m mentally not right or—(laughter)—
COHEN: Well, in many respects, people who so openly challenge a communist dictatorship could be said to do something irrational. But you survived.
But what about all the others you’ve now left behind? What about your lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, who was a friend of mine too? He’s lectured to my own students at NYU. What about all the others? He’s come off pretty well. He was convicted of a crime but released, but he was disbarred as a result of his conviction. But there are so many others who have residential surveillance.
We call it house arrest. It sounds so mild in English, as though you’re arrested at home. But it’s not your house. It’s the public security’s house. And you have no contact with the world. And many people stay the full six months. And he got out after 81 days. What’s the situation for the human-rights activists now and their lawyers?
AI: I think if—there’s still some can be called political activists. I don’t even think they can exist in China, even just for lawyers who fight for, you know, just basic rights of their clients. It’s not even—you don’t normally call it human rights. You just defend some people being wrongly accused. You can be put in jail. And many of them are being falsely accused without trial. They’re still in jail, and—
COHEN: But the party now has been stressing the rule of law, or at least ruled by law, in the last couple of years since the fourth plenum of the party congress.
AI: I don’t think that simply it’s not existing. If you touch any political issues, there’s no such thing as rule of law. You know, it’s just—it’s getting really very bad, I should say, the situation. It’s almost no space.
COHEN: What about artists? What about writers, other people who seek freedom of expression, cultural rights and all that?
AI: After so many generations of this kind of harsh to us, very few people willing to openly discuss issues. Yes, there are artists, writers. They write—trying to write more skillfully. But they still have to avoid the attention of the authority.
COHEN: But are writers more suppressed than artists? Artists don’t have to speak. They can paint. They can sculpt. To what extent do they have freedom?
AI: Writers or filmmakers are being very, very closely watched. But they do have a clear system to watch them because the censorship has been since 1940s, you know, year on. Before they control this nation it’s already very strong. So they are very skillfully dealing with any article or any television or films before it reaches the public. And for artists, very often they use more abstract language, so it’s not so threatened to the society, they think.
COHEN: What about the new media? You’re very good at making use of all kinds of new technology and ideas. Are there areas in the new media that can be vehicles for free expression now and contact with the outside world?
AI: When the internet just started in the middle ’90s, middle to 2000, I start my blog on 2005, which is—the state opened my blog. They said you should have this. This is good for you. Since I never touched the computer, I don’t even know, you know, how to type. But at that time I was architect, so they said, you know, you should let your voice to be heard. And I was encouraged by state-owned internet, called Sina.
And since then I had four or five years of, like, celebration on the Internet. I write every day, post minimal three articles a day. So I had over 10,000 writings on the internet. And then they realized I had become too dangerous, because each article sometimes can be—200,000 people would read overnight. They repost it. And I discussed everything. So after they tried to delete my articles, they think that it’s not going to work: they shut off totally all my internet site.
COHEN: This morning, in going through those materials I found, I saw an issue of the British magazine The New Statesman that you edited in 2012, after your release. And in the introduction, you stressed the importance of human-rights values as not Western but universal. And since then, the struggle in China has become more acute over Western, universal, Chinese authentic historical traditional values. What can you tell us about that?
AI: Very often the argument between China and the West is Chinese human rights are something which differed, and the Chinese has its own history or its own sense of development, and quite confusing, you know, when Western—all these journalists ask us, what should we do? Should we press more or less or, you know, should we still make the argument? Is human rights still an issue can be talked about? So very often I have to answer all those questions to the Western visitors.
So my answer always to this, they often ask if we keep asking your condition or give some pressure to Chinese government, is that going to hurt you? I always tell them it doesn’t matter it will hurt me or not. You have to do what you think is right. And I think the human rights, those values are really not—is shared by all, you know, as long as you’re human and as long as we coexist at the same time. So I always encourage people to openly make—to discuss, to confront, to have confrontation.
Even Chinese government appeared to be very frustrated and very difficult to talk, but I think you have to believe they are also rational. You have to believe they have to listen. You know, they have to care about their business partner or their—or they have to respect. They only respect somebody who would protect the principle. You know, you cannot underestimate. You cannot say, OK, you know, our value cannot be understood. I don’t think so. I think the value is made to make a challenge. You know, if you—well, you really think you cannot understand, it’s not a good value. So that’s always the point.
COHEN: Has Xi Jinping been good for encouraging study of Chinese history, Confucianism? I’ve tried for years to interest students in China and here in legal history. But in both countries students tend to think it’s boring. But Xi Jinping has made speeches indicating the Western values should be rejected. And Confucianism, and even legalism, should be revived and respected. Legalism, of course, was a totalitarian dictatorship that brooked no defense against what the government wanted to do.
What do you think about his impact? Is he inspiring interest in the young people of China in their great traditions?
AI: I think if you look at the communist history, they often, from different periods of time, pick up some kind of so-so ideas. I wouldn’t even call it ideas, because it’s really just trying to use some kind of—there’s no true knowledge behind those—what he or some other leaders, what they want. And it’s just simply empty words. And then nobody even know—in China or in the party, knows what he or other people is talking about. So it’s very, very difficult for leader in China to come up anything which makes sense. And I don’t think anybody in China can say they understand what is the past, what happened in Chinese tradition. There’s no real argument, no aesthetic argument, no philosophical discussions.
COHEN: How should we evaluate what we’re reading today, including today’s papers about the future of China and its leadership? Xi Jinping’s desire not only to have a second five-year term, but perhaps find some means to extend it, as some Asian dictators have done in the past—Marcos in the Philippines, Park Chung-hee in South Korea, et cetera? What do you see is going on now? On the one hand, Xi looks so all-powerful to the world. On the other hand, my own view has been there’s a tremendous amount of insecurity, that he has to confront enormous challenges. And while it’s not transparent, we should be aware that the situation is anything but stable. Is that too stark a portrait? What’s your own view of China’s government? We have our own problems here confronting us next Tuesday in our election. (Laughter.) And I’m just curious about your—how should we understand what’s going on in China?
AI: I think China is just as equally confused as the United States. (Laughter.)
COHEN: But we’re more open about it.
AI: Yes, but it doesn’t really make it more clear.
COHEN: (Laughs.) No, that’s right. (Laughter.)
AI: Yeah, if you say this argument around the elections, it doesn’t make them more clear. That’s funny enough to say. You know, you just have two people there. It’s more like Jerry and Tom, you know? (Laughter.) Because it’s always—and China is, of course, you don’t see it clearly. You don’t know what really the politicians, what they say is really what he means or he really have some new directions tomorrow. You know, nobody feels secure. The problem is with that society, you know, this kind of societies, nobody trust anybody. And nobody really believe in anybody. So that is a true problem. And so society like this large, how can it generate any kind of innovation or creativity, or even just simple invest? And nobody feels secure. And—
COHEN: What about foreign policy? We’re faced with the problem of how do we cope with China? How should we respond to China? And we have advice of all kinds, ranging from prepare to the worst to give up our interests in Asia so that China can control Asia and we would continue to control the Americas. What can we expect and what should be our response to what’s going on in China?
AI: Well, China is a very large state, and has its own character and history. But today, with globalization and with the internet, I don’t think any state can—if that kind of assumed middle challenge—can really avoid to interfere or to have common discussions about the values and judgement of principles. And all those has to be shared, has to be understand by all states. So even it’s most very difficult, especially this moment. If you see the world situation, it’s such a big confusion. But that means—only means it’s more needed to have—to have this kind of struggle.
And we all know with all this kind of struggle, what’s going to happen. You know, we don’t want to go back to the past in the way when we’ve seen so many tragedies, so many disasters, when we shut off. We’re trying to divide and we try to picture others as evil. Then, you know, it’s very simple. It’s going to be a much worse situation to come.
COHEN: Tell us about your view of Taiwan. You were detained at the airport en route to Taiwan. Have you been there often? Do you know much about it? You see, some of us see Taiwan as reemerging as the fundamental question of U.S.-China relations. And what to do about it is going to be an increasing issue in this country. But how do you see the situation in Taiwan?
AI: You talk about the food, or talk about—(laughter)—
COHEN: I think there’s no debate about the food. (Laughter.)
AI: Taiwan is—from China’s view, or from a person who comes from China—it’s a very unclear situation. It’s not an independent state. Under, you know, both Kuomintang, under communist, they all believe in one system—you know, one nation. But, at the same time, they’re not going to be as one nation. You know, we know there are two systems there. And I think that because Taiwan is—need develop and, you know, as today’s political landscape U.S. and China build a strong relations, and basically Taiwan is abandoned and nobody cares about Taiwan’s importance.
COHEN: In China, or where?
AI: Oh, you know, everywhere, I think. China—let’s just look at how many nations can recognize Taiwan as independent.
COHEN: Well, that, of course, is the result of the enormous pressure that China can bring to bear.
AI: Yes. That pressure will always be there. As we all know the pressures—you know, the whole world situation comes from these kinds of political pressures. You know, we—it’s not our ideology. But as a result those pressures, not only in Taiwan, is also in many, many geographic politics locations. You know, it’s many.
COHEN: Of course, it’s going to be a fundamental question confronting the American people. And I agree, not much is known about Taiwan. But we may be called upon to decide whether or not to defend it. And I don’t know how much people on the mainland care about Taiwan. We know the government’s incessant demands for the return of Taiwan, but how much do the people care about it?
AI: I don’t think there’s a people exist, even there’s one on the street, in population. But it’s hardly to call them people, because they’ve never been—had a right to vote, you know, after so many years. They have no space to—even to talk about their political views. There’s no independent price. So where’s the people, you know?
COHEN: Chairman Mao used to say there’s only the people, zhǐyǒu rénmin.
AI: That’s right.
COHEN: You’re saying the people don’t have a real voice.
AI: Once they have no voice, there’s no people.
COHEN: (Laughs.) Well, now we have an opportunity for members to ask questions, make comments. And I ask that you stand, identify yourself and your affiliation, and use the mic so we can all hear you. So let’s start. Minky Worden in the front row. Please keep your question to one question and reasonably concise, and it will maximize the opportunity.
Q: (Laughs.) Thank you very much. Thank you, Jerry, for a wonderful interview. And thank you, Ai Weiwei, for your strong defense of human rights around the world.
I wanted to ask you about your campaign and your efforts on behalf of refugees. What brought you to this work? What do you think you can bring personally as an artist? And how can we all do more?
COHEN: Very good. Minky Worden from Human Rights Watch.
AI: Thank you for asking this question. And since 10 months ago, last Christmas, I started to be really involved with this refugee situation. And refugee for me is not a very familiar word, even. But if I look back, I have been—always been in the same kind of condition as a person or a family being denied its own rights to choose by wall, by belief, or by economic reasons, or by political association. And my father was exiled for 20 years to a very foreign area. So our whole family have to be with him, and we are being rejected by society and criticized and put in hard labor. And—but still we are lucky—luckier than today’s refugees. They are—they are under the war. They have to grab something, just leave the nation; you know, leave everything behind, not just the material, the houses or money, but their language, their neighborhood, their religion, and leave everything behind; jump—you know, climb mountains or go all kind of stretch, passes, routes, wherever can lead them to a safe area. And of course they have the imagination to think Europe is the place. And it’s closer. And you know, from every advertisement or movie, you can see how beautiful and how well the human rights ideas being pictured.
So it’s very naturally to see, OK, after two kilometers of this ocean we can be—safe land, and there can be—have a chance to have our children to be—to have some education, to—not to be killed or disappeared.
But the reality—it’s not like that. You know, thousands of them are drowned in this ocean, and basically nobody received them on the other side of the land. They’re being totally neglected. And even some of them being accepted but been put in the so-called camps, but I think it’s like detention, exactly like detention. And for young people, for years they have to—waiting for some—(inaudible). It’s not—you know, you only can create criminals or mentally ill people by doing that. Don’t give them jobs, not—make them—make them feel their life worth nothing. They may be worse, a little bit, even when they go back to the war. But if they don’t want to be in the war, they want their children to be in safe land, then they become worthless, they become transparent. Nobody even know them. You know, nobody even cared, you know, who they are. And you know, they become just a problem.
So I got him out. I think I—you know, I know them. You know, when I received them in the—on the shore, in the—(inaudible)—I see—(inaudible)—you know, the children, the pregnant lady, you know, the—you know, the old lady, could be a hundred years old. They come down from those kind of areas—(inaudible)—and they considered as lucky ones. Once they come to the land, they cannot even walk because, you know, the cold, the wet, the—and nobody received them. It’s very surprising to me, you know, to be on this side of land, to see how Europe is so—at least can offer something, you know, some dry blanket or a cup of tea or, you know, anything, you know, just to help them a little bit, OK, keep them warm; and then to find a solution.
You know, we have—we’re a land of plenty. You know, to—from a Christian point of view or from a human rights point of view, to offer somebody something, it’s not so difficult. But it turned out it’s most dramatic difficult situation of our time.
So I start to document the situation. I think it’s not a situation going to be stopped in year or two years. So we made a long documentary film. We’re still making. And you know, we have our 20 filming teams. They covered Germany and Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Gaza, and—
COHEN: Is this why your next trip from here is to Mexico and to the border?
AI: Yeah, after this meeting I will travel to Mexico border. And we’re also in Bangladesh, in Syria, and Afghanistan—no—you know, Africa. So in January, I will go to Africa again to meet those people. I have been in more camps than probably anybody, more camps than U.N. people maybe because they all focus on one area.
You know, I travel everywhere. Personally, I did over 100 interviews to the politicians or U.N. people or Human Rights Watch, on refugees, on grave-diggers, smugglers, and priests—you know, all kinds of people. And it’s going to be a big film come out.
COHEN: Well, that’s wonderful, the way you’ve turned to the use of film in addition to other modes of artistic expression.
AI: I’m so frustrated. As an artist, you know, when you see those people, I can’t help them. Even I give all my money, it will not help them. It’s not going to help them. But knowledge—but let other people also know what’s happening, and I think it’s most important.
COHEN: Yes, please.
Q: Thank you. Paula DiPerna, the NTR Foundation.
Thank you very much for your work. I want to just ask you about a confluence of themes that I saw in your work and how it relates to politics, for example, an installation in Berlin, which was so moving, of just chairs. And I wonder if you could comment on your grip on the difference between, say, anonymity and collectivity and dignity and the role of the state, you know, the individual in human rights versus how does the individual live today relative to all these forces—collectivity, which can be good sometimes and, you know, not so much good all the time.
COHEN: Philosophy at the Council.
AI: Yeah, it’s very philosophical, but it’s—but it’s—I think this is a very—every individual have to come out this thinking or—you know, we are—live in capitalism, a world of globalization, or communist world, or whatever; and the power, state power, and—for efficiency or for economic reasons or other kind of power. It could be technology, development, or interest of just a simple product developing. But how an individual can still maintain its dignity and can still have its voice and can still have its own principle in dealing with those collective powers.
So I think this is maybe most important philosophical thinking we need to have in—at this time among the globalization and the internet—you know, information age. I think technology really provide us a beautiful possibility today. You know, you see innovations. You see people how to communicate and to share the information and to share the ideas.
But still it’s very challenging if you see how presidential elections, you know, would use billions and take all those television hours just asking these questions, which is not really relevant to individual’s life. So then, you know, you see there’s a lot of structural problem. It still come from the old time, from the previous structural power. And it need to be changed. And the only change will come from individual, from a lot of voice, and to make it happen. And because the—any kind of political power has its own—you know, has its own rights to protect—self-protect and will not change itself.
So I think individual involvement still is most needed. And I don’t know how much it can gain, but still it’s needed because it helps ourself. You know, it’s—it make us become one person.
COHEN: Go ahead.
Sharon Hom from another great human rights organization, Human Rights in China.
Q: Thank you, Jerry. And thank you—both of you for a wonderful conversation in progress. I wanted to—
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Stand up.
Q: All right. I wanted to ask about Hong Kong, where the people—at least for now there’s still space for people to exist. And the struggle for language and culture and one country, two systems, and democracy. And I wondered if you could share your views, because I know you’ve, you know, expressed support, particularly on social media, for the Umbrella Movement. But what do you think are the prospects for this struggle? What do you think is possible within the no space within the mainland, or naydi (ph)? And what do you think is the role of the international community in this very important struggle that is underway in Hong Kong?
COHEN: You’re not getting easy questions here. (Laughter.)
AI: Well, it’s almost all same answer. You know, is it take an individual or a group or any geographic location, it can be small or it can be large, to make their voice to be heard, and to come out with some kind of resolution or—you know, there’s no way. And it doesn’t come anywhere else. It’s really, you know, because you’re the one understand the situation more than anybody, that it is in the urgency. So you don’t. Of course, you can ask for other people’s help. And I don’t really believe that. I think everybody have to defend, have to fight, have to really make their own voice to be heard. And you know, that’s all—that’s how I think about it.
COHEN: This gives me a chance for a commercial. On November 14th at breakfast we’re going to have a roundtable discussion of what’s going on in Hong Kong and its implications for China and for the U.S.
In the back of the room I see a hand up. I don’t know whose it is, but please rise.
Q: Hi. I’m Chi Fei-fan (ph) from Taiwan, for SET-TV.
I have to say, this year in United States—
COHEN: Can you speak into the mic? It’s hard for us to hear you.
Q: OK. I would—I would have to say the most bizarre news that I observed this year is the American election is that a lot of Chinese people in China, or Chinese immigrants from China, actually favor Trump. And it’s very strange. It’s because all the Trump’s statements so far about China, I don’t think they are—frankly, I really cannot say that. But it’s just very strange why so many Chinese people favor him. And I came across an article on the internet, it says that’s because a lot of Chinese people thinks that Trump’s favor of strongman, he’s wealthy, and also because he doesn’t think human rights are very important it appeals to Chinese people. So I’m wondering what’s your take on this? (Laughter.)
AI: This also appeared to me as a—as a phenomenon, you know. Many, many Chinese, they are—they are—(inaudible)—immigrants. They are really working hard. And they—but they are more—I think a lot of them are in period of Republicans, I should say. And you know, they are—they love power. They love conservative. And they are not really defending—even some in China there are human rights defenders, but in here they become—(laughs)—yeah. Many of them openly talk about how much they love Trump. I couldn’t answer that, you know. (Laughter.) Yeah.
COHEN: Is it a craving for strong leadership, and he has the appearance of being a powerful, arbitrary person?
AI: And a lot of—and a lot of Chinese love Putin, you know? Same—Putin, Russia, you know? So you know, they all love strong leaders.
COHEN: Yes, please.
Q: I’m Dinda Elliott with the Paulson Institute.
And first, I wanted to thank both Jerry and Ai Weiwei for your work. You’re two of the world’s great truthsayers. So thank you for that. But, Ai Weiwei, a political question, again, about the U.S. election. I wanted to ask for your advice to the next U.S. president on U.S.-China relations. You know, the U.S.-China relationship—U.S. policy has been based for the last 30 years, say, on the idea that engagement with China is a good thing, that increased business ties, increased economic ties, good diplomatic relations, et cetera, will lead to more freedom in China, but also be beneficial for the United States. And these days, there are a lot of people in the—in the United States, even those who traditionally have supported China, a lot of people are wondering about that, are wondering is that the right policy? So what do you wish for the U.S. policy to be in the future? Thanks.
AI: This is also—in China we have an old saying, if you’re not at the position you should not give out the advice—(laughter)—because it’s not so truthful. But I try. And I think U.S. and China should have good relations, for sure. I mean, this is, you know, because if you talk about the whole politics, we should consider first should benefit both nation and its people there. And we both will be benefitted. And so I think that’s right decision. But there’s no excuse to sacrifice any values to not mention human rights, not to defending all those values. This is a very bad move. And it will make your partner or your—whoever you’re dealing with, will not respect you because they think you are just a fake. They think you are part of them. So I think that is very bad in any kind of negotiation.
COHEN: Yeah, there’s the young woman there—yes.
Q: Thanks, Jerry. Nancy Yao Massbach, Museum of Chinese in America.
There are 400,000—more than 400,000 Chinese students studying in the U.S. today, compared with a little over 400 60 years ago. As they formulate their worldview, their U.S.-China view, and their view on China in the world, what advice would you give them as they study in the U.S. today?
COHEN: It’s a very difficult question I confront every time I speak because what do they do, stay here? Go back? And what circumstances, go back and keep their nose clean? Go back and get locked up? Go to some third country? What should they do?
AI: I really don’t know. (Laughter.) It’s very hard to give advice to, like, that sort.
AI: Yeah. There’s a lot of young students study outside. And I think it helps China in the long run, because you can see gradually the really working force, or the most important decisions are going to be made by those people who come out. But as long as the Communist Party is there, they don’t trust anybody come back from the outside. Mr. Xi is an exception. You know, he has been—
COHEN: His daughter.
AI: Also, he himself has been out for quite some time—a half year, or a few years, maybe. So very often they don’t really trust people coming back from outside. So, you know, Chairman Mao never—because it’s traditional—Chairman Mao never been on board except for in Russian and in Soviet, not Russian. But not a good experience for him at that time, yeah.
COHEN: Yes, gentleman here with the glasses.
Q: My name is Stephen Blank.
A slightly different question. As you look around at the number of works—so many that you’ve created, so much that you’ve done—who would you say has influenced you the most? Artists, leaders, other people?
AI: I’m only influenced by my own experience, I should say. All my works come out from the necessity. It’s not because I’m an artist I have to create a subject. You know, it’s really because as a human or as someone has experienced miss my family or the social surroundings. And those things are so stimulating, and sometimes you want to find a language to carry out certain feelings. So, in searching of those languages may come—you know, some work may be successfully and can carry some concept, ideas. And sometimes it’s not very successful. But, you know, I’m still struggling. I may become a little bit better.
COHEN: What about the influence of your father? The thing that strikes me about Xi Jinping is he preaches Confucianism. One of its principal values is respect for your parents. And he’s repudiating the wisdom of his father, who, after 16 years of exile in China because of difficulties with Mao, came back and urged people we should allow different opinions—bùtóng yìjiàn—at the leadership level, at the mass level. And this is just what Xi Jinping is repudiating. How do you relate to what you learned from your father?
AI: My father was a poet. He was never a politician, but he made it in very high position as a poet. And he was—struggled with Communist Party before they took over the power. He knows Chairman Mao, Chou Enlai, the whole generation. He was kind of good friend with Xi Zhongxun, which is president’s father. And I think my father does have a strong influence on me, because he’s individual and he’s stupid; never learned. You know, the communists tried to teach him, but he just couldn’t learn. You know, it’s not possible for a poet to be—to really accept that kind of value.
So he’s punished and he suffered a great deal. But he still—he was still quite happy man, you know, very open man, I think, only because art and poetry helped him. You know, he still have higher values in his mind, in a very difficult time.
Q: Nick Platt, Asia Society.
Those of us who ponder what Xi Jinping is doing see a combination of great confidence and great insecurity. And anybody who has to get everybody else to say that you’re the core leader is clearly not too secure. What’s he afraid of? And what is the source of insecurity?
My own feeling is—and I want to try this out on you—is that China is changing so rapidly, and the economy and society are changing so rapidly, that Xi is worried that they are sliding away out from under party control, and he’s trying to reassert party control on a very, very fluid and uncontrollable situation. What do you think of that?
AI: I think in many ways it’s right. I think China, since China, the communists, never really have any kind of establishment in terms of philosophy or ideology, so it’s very hard for them to really, truly be in control. The idea of control is so out of date, but still they try to maintain the power and they’re trying to control. And so this makes them extremely difficult once they open the door, trying also to have capital, capitalism, and to have economic prosper.
And, yeah, the same—everything he did, he has to do. Otherwise he would not exist. And, you know, the internet control or even those corruptions and also to grab more power and to make more centralized power since there’s no other possibility—
COHEN: What about—
AI: —unless he really want to give up the whole communist structure, which I think is too big, demanding for him, you know. So that’s how I think.
COHEN: He’s taken on Promethean tasks, including pollution. Is there a solution for China? They’re transforming the economy from export to consumer, from, you know, manufacturing to higher services. He’s facing enormous problems and getting a lot of opposition.
AI: Yes, he’s facing a lot of problems. Many problems is come from past half-century. It’s not exactly the problems he created. And also those problems are not going to be solved within days. It takes maybe decades to really solve it. So I think it’s very difficult game for him. You know, it’s not easy matter.
COHEN: Question in the back there. I can’t see. Yes, please, the hand in the back.
Q: Thank you. Thank you so much for the briefing and the question-and-answer session. James Reinl with Middle East Eye.
You mentioned before that you’re going to be going to Syria soon. It’s obviously a crazily complicated conflict; involves China to a small extent, but Russia, Islamic State, the Assad regime, the U.S. What will you be doing there? And how do you make sense of the conflict?
AI: Yeah, if you look at Syria conflicts, yesterday I passed Soho. I went to a shop which sells the—how do you call—embroideries; you know, the silk piece. And I bought two Syria little, like, wallet; you know, so beautiful. I couldn’t—I couldn’t refuse to buy it. It’s very expensive; was 19th century.
Why I bought it, I just think the nation have such beautiful history, and it’s completely destroyed by many, many reasons; so many people trying to profit from it, and completely destroyed such a prosperity, you know, such a culture, and right in front of the whole world.
So this—you can make many, many arguments about it. And do we really care? And, you know, we see all those kids, millions of them. Just talk about their children, you know. They already lost education for past five years, and the whole generation will not be educated. And, you know, this is—this happens in 21st century. You know, it’s continuous war there, and there’s no way even to stop it.
And just if you look at the map, Syria is so small and affect our global situation so dramatically. And it may have many things happen like this. So how would we cope with the situation? I mean, our political leaders, or our visionaries, or our thinkers really, really has the reality, or just pretend not to see it. So—
COHEN: One more question. The hardest job I’ve had is dealing with so many questions unfairly. Please.
Q: Barbara Demick from the Los Angeles Times.
It’s wonderful that you’re doing Syria, but I wonder if that’s because you cannot really function as an activist inside China. Do you envision a time that you might be able to do the kind of work you had done with the Sichuan earthquake or really tackle issues inside China? And is that part of the reason the Chinese government has allowed you to travel, that you’re not doing China? (Laughter.)
AI: That’s a very, very simple conclusion or some kind of suggestion. When I fight human rights in China, I never think that’s human rights in China. I think that’s human rights everywhere. That’s first. And also, when I’m dealing with situation outside of China, I don’t even think that it’s not going to help China, you know? Human rights is the value which I believe is universal, it relate to everybody. Of course, I still have my voice in China. You know, I care about China very much and I know China so well.
You know, it’s because I’m not there I cannot just write blogs there every day to, you know, create same kind of attention, because that’s not even—that’s not honest, if I’m not there just keep writing about. I really want to face the danger and to be in the situation. I think that’s more real. That’s why I want to get into Syria, you know, as documentary maker. You don’t have to be there, but you—I’m still trying to be there, because, you know, that’s—we’re not making a documentary to educate others, but rather to educate myself, really know the situation.
COHEN: Well, a curfew tolls the knell of parting day, unfortunately. I have to thank you very much. (Applause.)