Ai Weiwei: My captors knew nothing about art

The Chinese dissident and artist discusses China, imprisonment and not being beaten

Topics: Books, Writers and Writing, Art, China, Asia, Ai Weiwei, ,

Ai Weiwei: My captors knew nothing about artAi Weiwei (Credit: AP/Jens Meyer)
Excerpted from Hanging Man

I carry the fresh tea back into the room. Weiwei pauses, his hand resting on his dog’s back.

“You know, sometimes they actually tried to make my conditions better,” he says quietly, almost to himself. “Once, after two days I couldn’t shit. Normally, every day I shit. Regularly. I go to the toilet every day. I said, ‘I need a banana.’ They gave me a banana but it was totally black. I joked: ‘It must be from the Beijing Cave.’ You know: Beijing has a cave with fossils of monkeys that are supposed to have evolved into human beings. It’s called Beijing Cave. These are the earliest signs of Chinese people. He laughed and said, ‘I’m sorry we don’t have any more bananas. This is the only banana we have left.’ But after that he started to routinely bring me bananas and oranges.”

‘This is the man who looked like a professor?”

“Yes. Because this man, although he is definitely kind of arrogant, he’s a little bit proud of himself as well. He said, ‘I smoke but I never take a cigarette from someone else.’ He’s not, how you say, corrupted.”

I found this incredible. I had assumed that the sort of people who work as secret policemen, and definitely as interrogators, must be ideologically pure – two-dimensional even – like characters in a Hollywood movie. As I listened, I couldn’t help wondering if Weiwei’s judgement had become compromised. Perhaps this was a sort of variation of the Stockholm Syndrome that one might expect him to suffer. I pressed him repeatedly on this: surely, I asked, some of the people who dealt with him must have had the zeal and the values of the Red Guards – the fanatical young supporters of Mao who would think nothing of beating their ideological opponents to death.

“I’m talking about the place I was in for the first fourteen days,” Weiwei says. “At the very end of the fourteen days both of the men had become soft. They started telling me they had given up. One of them said, ‘I cannot interrogate you, Wei-wei. I would rather interrogate a murderer or a thief. I cannot do this any more.’”

“But do you think this transformation was genuine? Or were they trying to trick you?”

“Later I found out it was genuine. They were telling me the truth. But at that moment I thought, well, maybe this is just a tactic.”

“What happened at the end of this first fourteen days then?”

“On day fourteen the interrogator came in and said, ‘Weiwei, the rest will be even more difficult. You may be transferred to many bad places that are much worse than here. You will remember your time here and wish you could come back. But you have to have patience. You have to be strong and have patience.’ I tried to capture every word they said. You want to save them because it is so strange they are saying these words to you. But you also don’t know precisely what they mean. These two interrogators just suddenly disappeared, which was a big surprise. They thought they would be doing the whole case. In their mind, they told me they would. They said, ‘We want this to be finished fast. We never imagined a case can be like this, but we can’t tell you the details because we’re not  allowed.’The main one, the Professor, was very sorry when he left, he touched my shoulder. Then four guys suddenly came in and said, ‘Time for you to move.’ They were all dressed in black suits. They stood, one of them in each corner of the room and then one of them said, ‘Stand up. Where are your belongings?’ They covered my face and I was driven off and moved to another place. Now I was in a military compound. There were two soldiers in front of me.”

“When you arrived, you were in what vehicle?”

“A van. Something like a Buick. Three rows of seats.”

“And your hood comes off again only when you are finally sitting on the chair?”

“Yes. They take me out a few times but always covered so you don’t know what is beyond the door.”

“How do you know it’s an army base then?”

“The soldiers are in the uniforms of Tiananmen Square. They walk like a performance. They are like robots. Every movement, even the smallest movement is like that. If they want to change position, they stamp their feet like robots. Like badly designed robots. What immediately came to my mind was the movie “Blade Runner.” There is a guy in the movie who likes to design little robots. They walk, hit the door, spin round, walk off again, hit the wall. It’s just like that. But of course it’s deadly serious.”

“So now what did you feel?”

“I understood that was what the interrogator had been trying to tell me. Because, you know, this was a completely different kind of condition, a whole set of different principles.”

“So you must have suddenly looked back on the first fourteen days as being better?”

“Yes. It is not nice to find yourself in an army base at all. It is terrifying, really another level of fear. I was very afraid that they would now use other techniques – techniques that I have heard about from other people who were arrested. I wouldn’t say I hate the army . . . but yes, I really do hate the army because I hate any kind of army because it is the most inhuman way of organizing people. You are into the hands of people only nineteen, twenty years old. But later I found out it’s not so bad because everything is so regulated, so empty, so abstract. If you behave in this condition you are perfectly fine. They completely don’t understand what’s going on. They’re doing their job just like the guards in front of the big gate at Tiananmen. ‘You cannot come in,’ they shout. You say anything else to them and they just shout ‘You cannot come in!’ Trained to do only one thing and incapable of doing anything else. But for the first week or ten days I was so terrified.”

“But where were you kept?”

“Again, a room. A kind of hotel room. But this room looked so funny because everything was covered with soft cushions.”

“You mean it was a comfortable room?”

“No, to prevent suicide I think.”

“Oh – I see: a padded room.”

“Yes. That’s the word: padded. But so badly taped and everything. Very badly. Soft foam everywhere.”

“The walls? The floor?”

“Everywhere. Even the water taps. You turn on the water and the foam around the taps is so dirty because of the moisture. Even the toilet. After a while the foam gets loose, they re-tape it. After a while the wall becomes curved, where it sags because it is so old. But you can’t touch anything anyway. You have two guards. All the time. Twenty-four hours a day. When you sleep they sit there and they’re not like police. The police, they like phones. They play phone games and they’re a little bit loose, you realize later, because when you have soldiers, even at midnight they are still like this: stiff like brooms. They cannot doze but they are so sleepy because their minds are so empty. And sometimes they would argue. One would say, ‘You cannot blink your eyes!’ And the other said, ‘You did, not me!’ Because there’s two cameras watching the room all the time and if either one of the guards is caught, if they are found to be sleeping or blinking, they’re both in serious trouble. The two cameras can blow up their eyes to the size of a wall. So the cameras can really see if they doze. You realize they are soldiers but they too are just like criminals. They are really being highly watched. Even when they come out of my room they are searched. There’s two other soldiers whose job it is to search them . . . They cannot talk to you. They cannot talk to each other. The whole day is silent until someone comes to interrogate you. The silence is exhausting. Being silent with other people in the room. And when you go to pee you have to raise your hand and say, ‘Sir I need a pee.’ They have to say yes before you can even stand up. Then you can stand up but they have to go with you, in this tiny room. One person before you, one behind. One goes to the bathroom door. He stamps his feet and turns round and looks at you and then goes backwards into the bathroom. Then you go in. Between the two of them. The other one follows you in. Stamp, stamp. Then you start to pee. Then they look at your dick because, you know, they have to make sure it’s really a dick. It’s true! This is their regulation and there’s also a camera in the bathroom. They are being watched. After peeing you report to the soldier, ‘Sir, I have to wash my hands.’ If you don’t say anything they say, ‘Report!’ So you say, ‘Report, sir, I have finished washing my hands. Can I go out?’ They say yes, then one goes backwards. Stamp. You go backwards and again the other one stamps feet and follows. This is total full protection. You cannot make any single strange move.”

“How close were they?”

Weiwei moves his chair towards me. Now his face is forty or fifty centimeters away from mine. Already it feels very uncomfortable.

“This close. And if you do like this –” Weiwei wobbles – “they immediately jump. They say to me, ‘If you hit the ground I will be in jail, in your position.’ But there’s so many stories . . . It’s another world. They are just nineteen-year-old boys. Before they come to the camp, they are in places where there is no electricity. They are farmers’ sons. No toilet.”

“How do you know? You can talk to them?”

“We develop techniques for talking. They change shifts every three hours and every time when their shift came to an end I could see that it was such a relief for them and always as the end of the shift was approaching, they would always keep looking at their watches and muttering, ‘Fuck! They’re late.’ They would do this even though the next shift might only be late by one minute. Even one minute was too long to bear; it would make them so frustrated, it would make them so mad, ‘Fuck! They’re late again. Fuck.’ Because they are so desperate to escape the prison cell as well – they’re almost as desperate as I am. They signed up to the army for two years when they were still so young and as soon as they become soldiers they have to do so much daily exercise. It’s very hard. They have to run five kilometers in less than twenty minutes with all the gear and then there’s lots of physical training. Then they have to come and sit in this room and for two years literally they never leave this army camp. There’s no vacation, no Sunday, no Saturday; they can only call their family for ten minutes each week, in front of the whole army, with no privacy.”

“Are they conscripts or volunteers?”

“First two years they are volunteer soldiers. They are paid less than forty dollars a month. They join up because they are from such poor areas. In those parts of China, life is so hard. Before they arrived at the army they would never have seen a toilet. There’s no electricity, there’s no toilet sheets, I mean the paper, they just use newspaper or whatever comes to their hands; leaves, rocks, whatever. Then they see on the television some advert or something – a movie – so they start to admire the army uniform and they start to say, ‘One day I want to be a soldier.’ But now they are so miserable. They’re just farmers’ children. They feel very sad. All the time they become ill because of the training. Their bones make noises when they move, cracking everywhere because they have to stand all day. They have problems with their backs and they have problems with their legs but they always have to stand to attention. They are not allowed to talk to me. If they do that it would be a very severe crime. They can be removed immediately. They are not supposed to reveal what their names are or where they come from but because they are only eighteen or nineteen they start to talk to me. They are curious. They have so much curiosity.”

“How do they do this?”

“Everything happens during the period when I walk around the room or when I am lying on the bed pretending to sleep. They develop this technology – not technology – I mean they develop this technique. They talk to me without moving their lips. They talk like this, like a, how you say, like a ventriloquist. They have to look at me but they are not allowed to look at each other and I am forbidden to look at them, even for a second. But when I am walking round the room and they are walking next to me, guarding me in this tiny room, we talk without moving our lips. Of course I have to hold my pants because I don’t have any belt and my button is already loose. I walk, holding my pants round and round in circles and they march next to me. They have to march and stamp their feet when they turn. It’s crazy. I keep asking them if theycan just put in a few stitches, so I don’t have to hold it. They could never even agree to that simple request. Every time they said, ‘We have to check. We have to report to our leader; report about the loose button and see if anything can be done.’ Every day they walk with me in this military fashion, every turn, every move, maybe even just one step, all very precisely done. Clicking their heels. It’s so ridiculous but they have to do it. The camera is watching them so they have to do that. They are being examined. And they keep telling me, ‘Don’t just think about you; think about us. We’re still young and we have no criminal record but we are just as much a prisoner as you are.’ Then they say, ‘The first day I arrived in the army I so regretted coming. I realized it was such a big mistake.’ Someone’s watching them all the time but they keep telling me these stories. They keep saying to me, ‘You sleep, we have to stand to attention next to your bed. You eat, we have to stand next to you. You shit, you take a shower, we have to stand there. What crime did we ever commit?’ They don’t understand what has happened. One day, I noticed that one of them was sad and I said, ‘Why do you feel so sad today?’ He said, ‘Because the person I look up to, the person I respect . . .’ How do you call that?”

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“A mentor?”

“Yes. A mentor. He said, ‘I am sad because my mentor has died.’ I thought: What? But he’s a farmer’s son. How can he have a mentor? I said, ‘Who is your mentor?’ ‘Bin Laden,’ he said. ‘He was killed by the Americans.’ That day was May 2. I was completely shocked. It was incredible. I was not supposed to know any information from outside and this guy was telling me that bin Laden had just been killed by Americans! I said, ‘He’s not your mentor.’ But he said, ‘I respect him. I hate Americans.’ They all say they hate Americans but they don’t really hate Americans. They love American songs, they love whatever Americans do but they’ve been told Americans are brutal, crazy, inhuman. But you can sense this military education . . . but you can sense this whole military education.”

“So, it was sixty-six days you spent there. Was there a third place?”

“No, I stayed there till the end. I stayed almost seventy days in there.”

“Who were the interrogators?”

“The guy at the army camp was about my age and you can see that he grew up during the Cultural Revolution.”

“Was he a soldier?”

“No. He was a soldier once, now a policeman. Many policemen were soldiers before. He was a very hardcore type of person.”

“Did you meet him on the first day?”

“No. After two days. The first interrogator came to tell me: ‘Weiwei, this guy will replace my work, my job. He will be the one to take over.’”

“Was he uniformed?”

“No, plainclothes. He likes to wear shirts like me. But they always have bright colours printed on them. And big English words, very sporty – but I’m sure he doesn’t understand one single word of what they say.”

“What is his accent?”

“He’s from the northeast. Dongbei. That’s a sign. Because normally Beijing police are Beijing people. When somebody’s not from Beijing they must have been in the army.”

“And during this second period, on the army base, were the interrogators more resolute?”

“This guy at the army base was a real gung-ho person and was leader of the team. They have a team of four or five people.”

“It’s a police team?”

“Yes. It’s a Beijing police team. The military police. APF, that’s Armed Police Force. Their job is just to do the capture. They know nothing about the case.”

“And the Beijing police force is responsible for the interrogation?”


“But during the second period you didn’t find the same sympathy among the interrogators?”

“Later I did. But not at first. The interrogator who came in was so stylish, so self-conscious. He questions me but of course you can see that mentally he has no idea about political crimes or art. They know nothing about art.”

“Yes. How did they deal with your art?”

“At the beginning he was yelling, very mad. I said, ‘Why are you doing that? Why do you have to raise your voice so high?’ He looks at me like I’m a criminal or something. Then gradually he became calm. I can sense that they are all so frustrated with the situation. Firstly, they don’t understand art. Especially they don’t understand my kind of art. They have no idea why Sunflower Seeds is art. He shouted at me, ‘Why do you think the twelve animal heads from Yuan Ming Yuan are your work?’”

The work the interrogator was referring to was the circle of giant animal heads that Weiwei had cast in bronze. They were inspired by twelve animal heads that had acted as fountains in the old Summer Palace in Beijing. Each head was an animal from the Chinese zodiac. Anything to do with the Summer Palace, which was burnt to the ground in 1860 by invading French and British soldiers, is a lightning rod for Chinese nationalism. Weiwei points out that the ruling Qing dynasty were not actually Han Chinese (being descendants of Manchurian invaders) and the designers of the original heads were also foreigners (Jesuits), as were the craftsmen who cast the figures.

“It’s impossible for them to understand. So I have to do a lot of explanation.”

“But did he know about all those pieces?”

“Of course. But like the others, he thinks these pieces are really economic scams. Big scams. He became very angry. He said, ‘This is not art. I tell you what this is, my friend. This is a scam. We know how much it costs to make Sunflower Seeds and you sell them for this much.’ They said, ‘How can Sunflower Seeds be art?’ I said, ‘It’s art, or not art, I don’t know, I don’t care. It’s not the thing I care about the most. I care if I can provide a new condition, a new perspective, and from that angle, see something completely new.’”

“Condition? For other people or for you?”

“For me and also for others. So that in the new condition people can look at the world differently and draw different conclusions. It’s not practical or logical; it’s not science or rational thought. It deals with our imagination, our fears, our dreams. We talked quite a lot on these things actually. First they don’t understand: ‘What other view? What condition? What new angle?’ I tried to tell them that the classical view about art is very limited and it cannot really cope with today’s life or today’s understanding of ourselves or our universe. Very often it is beyond our aesthetic judgement. Then later on they start to understand a little bit. They really did. And they learnt. They want to know the nature of my work: why did you stick a finger at Tiananmen – it’s not art, it’s just a gesture of insult in the west, everybody knows this means ‘Fuck off.’ I said, ‘The work is entitled ‘A Study of Perspective’ and in the old days in the west, in Renaissance times, perspective was suddenly very important.’ So of course first they think I’m just lying. But they are fast learners. They are very smart people. They are all very smart, intelligent people. It’s only because their job limits them to a very limited position. So, I explained art to them and then many times they said to me, ‘Weiwei, why whenever we talk about art and concepts do you get so excited that you keep talking? And why when we talk about facts, you say, ‘I don’t know’?’ But I say, ‘You know, I like to talk about art, and it makes me joyful and when I get to talk about art and explain I get very high spirits.’ But when I talk about which day, and how much money and all that, I really don’t remember those things. It’s not what I care about. And later they realise there are movements like Dada, or surrealism. It was incredible. One day they came back in to interrogate me some more and they were very happy, as if they had made a great breakthrough in the case: ‘OK, we found out! You’re part of Dada.’ I said, ‘Ahh, yes, you’re a little closer.’”

The picture of Weiwei handcuffed to a chair bringing secret policemen around to his views on conceptual art is one of the strongest images from this account he gave me of his eighty-one days in detention. And he somehow succeeded in his quest. I asked him if he had changed their views on art and he said he was sure he had done so. But art wasn’t the only thing that they wanted to talk about. Once Weiwei was in the army camp, it seems the interrogators became less shy about their real motives for locking him up.

“After a while they gave up talking about pornography, economic crimes and digging on those issues, and finally they started to very carefully approach the political situation. The evidence that they produced was taken from my blog articles, which I wrote back in 2007 and 2008. They printed out many of the blogs and let me read them, and to be honest I did not even remember writing them because the blog was shut off in 2008 and since then I have been writing a lot more tweets. It was interesting that they didn’t print out any of the tweets. I think maybe this was because they think that as Twitter is outside the Chinese firewall it cannot be used as evidence. I don’t know. I have no idea. But I read the blogs and I realized that what I had said was quite strong. Although I could not immediately recognize the writing because it was from so long ago, I think it must be mine because I am the only person who has spoken out in that way.”

Many of Ai Weiwei’s old blog posts are available in English translation in Lee Ambrozy’s excellent book “Ai Weiwei’s Blog.” I ask Weiwei if the posts that the interrogator is referring to are the same as those in that collection.

“Some of the blogs the interrogator was using as evidence of my subversive activity are in there. But some – the toughest, most critical ones – are not in there. The ones where I curse the Communist Party are not in there. Actually when I read them back, I was a little bit shocked by what I had written because that is definitely a solid evidence, very solid evidence of subversion of the state.”

“So how did they handle that?”

“They told me only three people have ever been accused of subverting state power. One is Liu Xiaobo, one is Gao Zhisheng [a human rights lawyer who has won several high-profile cases against the government] and another is Hu Jia. Look what happened to them. I think all of them are quite soft, not really very tough, and I did much more than them and so every time I have to compare myself with them I think: this is not good.”

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo is one of China’s greatest dissidents. Born in 1955, Liu had his schooling interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, like everyone of his generation. He did eventually attend university and went on to do doctoral studies in literature at Peking Normal University. Quickly he established himself as an intransigent critic of contemporary Chinese culture, which he found to be weak and dishonest and hamstrung by the decades of Communist Party oversight and intervention. In 1986, Liu spelt out his misgivings. “I can sum up what’s wrong with Chinese writers in one sentence. They can’t write creatively – they simply don’t have the ability – because their very lives don’t belong to them.” Political indoctrination, self-censorship, an inability to look beyond purely Chinese preoccupations and a lack of concern with transcendental human values were just some of the faults Liu found in the writings of his contemporaries.

As with Ai Weiwei, it is not hard to see how Liu’s position on the arts led quite naturally to political dissidence. On June 2, 1989 Liu led a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. Afterwards, he was labeled one of the “black hands,” the leaders who were instrumental in fermenting unrest. He was jailed for eighteen months but on his release he immediately picked up where he had left off and began to submit articles on democracy and human rights to publications in Hong Kong. In due course he was rearrested and jailed for a second time. After his release he became Chair of Chinese PEN, part of the writers’ organization International PEN which promotes freedom of expression and attempts to draw attention to the plight of writers who have fallen afoul of repressive regimes. As his profile increased, he found himself the subject of constant police harassment and was frequently beaten up in his own home by police thugs. Liu remained undeterred. In 2008, he joined with some friends in the creation and dissemination of Charter 08, a petition calling for human rights, democracy and the rule of law in China. The day before the petition was published, on 8 December 2008, Liu was arrested and held for over a year until finally, on Christmas Day 2009, he was sentenced to eleven years in jail. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia in 2011. His wife was barred from at tending and the Nobel committee placed the award on the seat of an empty chair.

“Did the interviewer mention their names to you?”

“Yes. On the first day they said quite clearly to me, ‘You are number four. We did three of them already.’ So from the very beginning I know this is a big problem because for these crimes there is no real measure. They can sentence you to over ten years or one year, two years. They can do whatever they want. So now I start to have such a big struggle in my mind.”

“But I don’t understand, if they had the evidence, which they did, because they had all the printed-out blogs . . . Why then did they need to go through the whole charade of all those days and days of interrogation?”

“Yes! In those blogs I would say such strong things, like, ‘This government is most disgraceful, unreliable, unacceptable government.’ They would say, ‘What does this mean?’ or they would say, ‘When you say ‘this government’ which government are you referring to?’ I said, ‘This is just the article, I write this way. You have to just read the article. You cannot ask me this.’ Then they would say, ‘Why are you being so timid? Are you scared of us? You always say you are very open? Why can’t you say very clearly what you mean by ‘this government’?’ They keep coming back and I have to spell out, ‘When I say this government in the blog, I am referring to the Chinese Communist Party.’ Then they would type it down as evidence and I said, ‘Why not give it back to me and I can rewrite it more clearly for you?’ They were very mad when I would say something like that.”

“Did they beat you?”

I had wanted to ask this since I had first stepped through Ai Weiwei’s door. The specifics of his treatment, and whether or not he was physically tortured as well as mentally tortured, are significant.

However, I hadn’t felt comfortable about asking the question and I had been waiting for Weiwei to volunteer the information.

“No. They didn’t beat me. They said, ‘I wouldn’t hit you because only cowards beat people.’ I said in response to that, ‘You cannot say that. You beat Gao Zhisheng, in such a bad way.’ And they just said, ‘Oh! Don’t listen to him. It’s not true.’ But I know they did beat him and they beat many others too. It was quite normal. But they were very nice to me.”

“Why was that?”

“I have no idea why they didn’t beat me but I think that maybe the higher level told them not to touch me and so they are very nice to me, very courteous.”

“But this goes back to the beginning of our interview because you do communicate with the people in charge, don’t you? You have channels to people who are very high up?”

There were rumors in circulation that Ai Weiwei was in direct communication with members of the Politburo. Anecdotes dating from 2010 told of how on some occasions Weiwei would ask everyone to leave the compound and not return until late at night. People in the neighbourhood claimed that on these occasions they would see black limousines pull up outside his door, teams of plainclothes officers would be disgorged and then one or another of the octogenarian Chinese leaders would totter into Weiwei’s courtyard. Weiwei was utterly dismissive of all this:

“Me? I don’t have any channels. I know people but we don’t have any communication.”

“But you were invited to join the Standing Committee of the People’s National Congress?”

“Yes. They talked to me but even today I don’t know if it’s a trick or real . . . I still can’t figure it out. I think it’s real but how do you know? One thing after another. You are offered great laurels and then you are arrested and in such a terrible situation. Everything seems so ridiculous. You can’t trust what they say.”

“But given your treatment, which was bizarre in a way, it must go all the way to the top.”

“It’s simple: they don’t know how to handle me. They said they were watching me for over one year. They have twenty-one accounts of close engagement with me, I don’t even know. Finally they decide to arrest me.”

“But who made the decision? And why then?”

“I have no idea who made the decision to arrest me or who made the decision to let me go.”

“But you would agree that it must be someone on the standing committee or in the Politburo?”

“That’s for sure. It has to be someone on that level.”

“There is one man who seems to be Big Brother in China. He is always proposing things like, electronically tagging the whole population.”

“Yeah, yeah, Zhou Yongkang [a senior leader in the Communist Party well known for his especially hardline stance]. Yes. Definitely he knows. But I cannot say he made the final decision. Who knows? But he must have been notified of all this, kept up to date. That’s for sure.”

“There would have been elements at the very highest level who would have not wanted you to be arrested because there is all this investment in soft power by China, and to arrest you meant all this effort was wasted?”

China under Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao has tried very hard to improve its image abroad, setting up the international network of Confucius Institutes and investing heavily all over the developing world.

“Yes. But who would calculate this? I have no idea,” says Weiwei.

“They would calculate it around a table . . . Someone would say, ‘I don’t think we should do this, the whole world is watching,’ and someone else would say, ‘But he is stirring up trouble. Look what happened in Egypt, in Syria,’ and so on . . .”

“I heard a rumor that the Premier, Wen Jiabao, finally said, ‘This is going to ruin everything.’ He reflected on his trips to Germany and England and realised that if I was still in jail then all his diplomatic efforts in Europe would be wasted because of protests about my treatment. Then I think he referred to Hu and I think they made the decision to let me go because they never really imagined this can cause such trouble. They never really imagined one person can cause such trouble.”

“But they are both sympathetic to being more open anyway. They are not such hardliners as some of the other Politburo members; they think soft power is the way forward for China, not aggression. But then again, this is all just speculation.”

“Yes. This is really just speculation. It is impossible to know.”

“But if you think about it, it must have been the Arab Spring and then Zhou uses it . . .”

“Yes. He uses that as a tool, as an excuse for a crackdown which he wants anyway . . .”

“And when the leaders see what is happening in the Arab world they get scared.”

“Yes, yes. It’s like that. Remember what they did a few years ago to Falun Gong, that group, which was really nothing at that time. They started to get scared and the whole nation was doing such a brutal clampdown – which was absolutely ridiculous. But today they are little bit more calculated. A little bit more practical.”


“Yes. Pragmatic. All their efforts can just be destroyed by bad press. So they are more careful. In any case, this isn’t about individuals; it reflects the system. It’s the system that is the problem.”

“Yes, just as you said the soldiers are prisoners themselves.”

“The big machinery. Big old machinery of the system.”

“Finally, at the end of eighty-one days, what happened? Was there any indication?”

“No. Nothing. The day it ended they interviewed me and said, ‘Weiwei, you are facing ten years in jail, or maybe even more, so don’t be ridiculous and be optimistic about your situation. You will feel very sorry if you do.’ They keep telling me that. It’s not interrogation. Then they said, ‘I give you a test.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘If you have to see one person before you get into the whole process, who you want to see?’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because once you are in there you cannot see your relatives for a long, long time.’ I said, ‘Well, maybe my mother. My mother.’ ‘Why?’ ‘My mum is old; if I’m in jail for a long time, I owe her a lot. I would love to see my son but he’s a baby.’ So they said, ‘OK, I’ll make sure you see her. That’s what I can promise you.’ Then they have to record everything. I have to tell them. I gradually feel they are preparing something. Everything they have to record. To give someone else to look at. They said, ‘You have to admit the crimes.’ I said, ‘But this isn’t a court, I have never even been arrested. Why do I have to do it?’ ‘You have to do it, trust me, otherwise I will never come back, even to interrogate you.’ I don’t even know whether or not what I am being accused of are crimes. I don’t know about tax laws, or whether or not it is illegal to have a child with a girlfriend when you are legally still married. What is the law? I have no idea. He just said, ‘Trust me, if you haven’t violated the law I will not arrest you. You think we are joking? If I ask you to say you killed somebody and you say you kill somebody, you think I can sentence you? There have to be some facts. So just admit it, for our records, that’s all.’ You can see they have such anxiety to get me to admit everything.”


“Now I understand. He said, ‘Just trust me,’ he even gave me a lot of signals. OK, so what you want me to do? He said, ‘Just say you admit: admit you are willing to take punishment.’ ‘OK,’ I said. ‘If I’ve violated tax law, if it’s been proved that I have, then I should be punished.’ That was as far as I was prepared to go and for every accusation I said the same thing and then when we had finished, they said, ‘OK, you’re on bail.’”

“So it happened in one day?”

“Yes! It’s crazy. Now I see that they must have been under such pressure. They had to release me but they had to first make me admit. They said, ‘Come on! Just admit then you can go! I promise!’”

‘”But at the time you didn’t know.”

“No. So, it was such a burden. I was so confused. Because before he sent some weak signals but I cannot do it. They said, ‘Why are you so stubborn? If you don’t do it, if you don’t admit you are a tax criminal, then you will be here for months or years. You want to stay here?’ I said, ‘Come on, it’s not lawful.’ They said, ‘What is not lawful? Are you crazy? You have no choice. Either do what I say and go back to normal life, or stay here. We are helping you.’ They truly were helping me in their way.”

“When he released you what did you feel?”

“I had no feeling. I had already become a person where like you take everything as the same, because even when you’re released you are still in this big, unlawful prison. Nothing really to protect you and everybody just listens to the decision of somebody high up. So I don’t really feel anything. Of course, I feel a little bit better not to have two soldiers standing next to me but I don’t feel happy.”

“But psychologically speaking, what happens? One day you were in this room facing years of jail and then the same day you find yourself back here.”

“Yes. One day. That’s all. It’s like a bad dream. It’s totally illogical. It makes no sense.”

“They just dropped you at the door?”

“Yes. And I suddenly see two guys from Associated Press standing at the door shouting, ‘Weiwei!’ I had to hold my pants. My pants had no belt. They’re so loose. It looks so funny. They just have no time to give me anything in jail.”

“So how did you get in? You must have felt relieved?”

“My housekeeper. I went inside. To my home. The door shut behind me. I stood in the courtyard, just outside this room; over there. I feel nothing. I feel empty.”

Excerpted from “Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei” by Barnaby Martin, published in September 2013 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Barnaby Martin. All rights reserved.

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