Running with China’s untamed dragon

In 2008 the artist Ai Weiwei was the toast of Beijing but then was jailed as a rebel. Alison Klayman has been at his side, filming his ordeal.

On April 3 last year the world-famous artist Ai Weiwei was arrested at Beijing airport while trying to board a flight to Hong Kong and was taken to an undisclosed location. For a long time friends had no idea what had happened to him.

It was a horrifying reversal in the fortunes of a man I had followed with a documentary camera for three years. At the time of the last Olympics, in 2008, Weiwei was the toast of China where the Games were being staged.

He worked on Beijing’s spectacular “bird’s nest” stadium and was expected to play his part in the opening ceremony of the Games. But then he boycotted the event, calling it a “fake smile” put on by China’s Communist party. “It even had the police force dancing on the fields,” he said. “This is the fantasy of a totalitarian society.”

In the years that followed I filmed him as he played what he described as his “game of chess” against the government, using his blog and Twitter to expose abuses of power.

One of Weiwei’s campaigns was to find out how many children had died in the badly built schools that were destroyed in the Sichuan earthquake. The figure was an official secret but Weiwei used volunteers all over the country to ask people for the names of the children who had died. Then he published them all.

In retaliation, one night police broke into his hotel room and beat him badly enough for him to require emergency brain surgery. Another time, his new studio complex in Shanghai was demolished.

After he was taken into custody last year, protests erupted outside Chinese embassies all over the world. In London, Tate Modern wrote “Release Ai Weiwei” across the glass top of the turbine hall.

His friends feared a lengthy detention and a serious political charge such as “incitement to subversion of state power”. But when the authorities finally acknowledged taking Weiwei into custody, they did not bring political charges. They announced he was being investigated for “economic crimes” involving tax evasion.

On June 22 last year he was returned home in the middle of the night and put under a host of bail conditions restricting his speech and movement.

My footage of him returning home was shocking. He seemed like a shadow, not fully there. For 81 days he had had two guards at his side at all times. He had been interrogated every day about his foreign contacts and whether he was involved in plotting a so-called “jasmine” revolution. “No one in the world cares for you,” he was told. When he came home and told the journalists waiting at his door, “I promised I wouldn’t say anything”, I felt his remark like a physical blow.

It was so different from the first time we met, in 2008, when Weiwei’s demeanour was confident and open. A large man, he commanded the room but joked and put people at ease. He was just like his blog where he posted pictures of his life — his cats, journalists interviewing him, self-portraits taken in hotel rooms and him giving haircuts to his staff — as well as essays on the philosophy of art and biting political commentary. When posts were taken down by internet police, he reposted them.

Shutting down a blog, he once told me, “can happen any time. You can never underestimate this kind of totalitarian society. They can do anything”.

Six months later the blog was indeed taken down and the authorities put surveillance cameras on his door, but Weiwei was not easily deterred.

A year after he was assaulted we went back to Chengdu, where it had happened, to file an official complaint. I was scared.

By chance, when we were there Weiwei ran into the police officer who had hit him. Weiwei snatched off the man’s sunglasses to get his face on camera. Afterwards we were followed by plain-clothes police.

Our group was staying in one hotel and there were jokes about the police breaking down the doors in the night, as they had done the previous year. Weiwei thought they would not because it was a smarter hotel. But I slept with my tapes in secret compartments.

I once asked Weiwei how he could be so fearless. He said: “I’m not fearless. I’m fearful.” He does what he does because he understands what the state authorities are capable of.

Born in 1957, he was the son of one of China’s most famous modern poets. Ai Qing had been an ardent supporter of the Communist party but fell out of favour in the 1950s and was sent into internal exile in the remote Xinjiang province. Weiwei grew up watching his father being forced to work as a lavatory cleaner; during the cultural revolution the family were abused as “class enemies”.

Ai Qing tried several times to kill himself and at public denunciations he had ink flung in his face. But the subject of his father’s humiliation is complicated for Weiwei, perhaps because he does not necessarily want to be defined as the son of Ai Qing. I watched him give many interviews to journalists and he would say: “My family didn’t influence me very much.” I thought, oh, come on!

After the cultural revolution Ai Qing’s reputation was restored and Weiwei was allowed to join the first generation of Chinese students to go to the United States. Returning to China in 1993 he became a successful artist and architect.

Some people say Weiwei does the campaigning so as to raise his profile, raise the value of his art. I admit that when I began filming him I thought: this is a guy who admires Andy Warhol. How genuine is he?

Now, having seen so much, I think he is genuine about the issues he is trying to promote. To go along with the status quo in China, being who he is, he could make so much money. Instead, he has picked a difficult road.

Few people who are credible disagree with what he is saying about China. Nobody would deny there is a problem with the rule of law, or censorship.

“Everyone says China has changed a lot,” he told me, “but it hasn’t changed in the sense I value the most. What they changed are all those [financial] numbers and bigger buildings and roads, which is fine, maybe it’s important, but it’s not what I’m interested in. Freedom of speech and the liberation of the mind, those things never changed.”

The only point in being famous, he said, was to fight for other people’s wellbeing. “So I clearly announce my ideas and I let [the authorities] know they can’t stop me by attempting to scare me. I will go all the way and they must make sure to be ready for that.”

Myself, I am an independent film maker, born in America, who went to China soon after graduating from college. I embarked on a documentary about an artist but the story became one about freedom of expression, individual rights and the rule of law. Many people are interested in pushing the boundaries in China and Weiwei’s supporters did a huge amount to help him.

When his studio was demolished, supporters came together for a mock “celebration” meal at great risk to themselves. When the tax authorities served him with a £1.5m bill, supporters gave £900,000 to cover the cost of his appeal.

There are still threats to his way of life. On July 20 a district court in Beijing upheld the tax case against him in a proceeding that journalists, diplomats and the artist himself were barred from attending. He cannot travel. In effect, little has changed since the day he was released. He is not superhuman. He has a child and he would prefer not to be locked up while his son grows up.

Yet despite the restrictions Weiwei still has the old verve. He is back on Twitter. And on the anniversary of his detention he put up his own surveillance cameras. On the “Weiwei-cam” you can watch him in real time — in bed or in his courtyard. It was the perfect gesture — not just defying the authorities but also demonstrating a wonderful kind of transparency.

1413 words. First published 29 July 2012. © Times Newspapers Ltd.