Evan Osnos has been speaking with Ai Weiwei, whose fight with the government has been relatively quiet over the last few weeks:
The branches are bare outside Ai Weiwei’s house this time of year, which leaves the police cameras bulging from the lampposts like overripe coconuts. Sometimes, the temptation is overwhelming. Ai Weiwei ended up at the police station a couple of weeks ago, accused of lobbing stones and “attacking a security camera.” (When word got out, one of his fans circulated his concern online: “Was the camera badly injured? Did it need a checkup? Perhaps, a CT scan?”)
It has become Ai’s new routine. “The police come every week or I have to go to the station—for education,” he told me one recent morning, at the giant dining-room table, winter sun pouring in from the south.
“I have to stay in Beijing until June 22nd,” he said. “Every time I go out I have to pronounce to them where I have to go and who I have to meet. I basically obey their orders because it doesn’t mean anything. I also want to tell them I’m not afraid. I’m not secretive. They can follow me or whatever. But to leave China? I think that’s a political decision they have to make. Of course, I have rights and am entitled to travel. But let’s see how they will play that. I’m not eager to leave or not to leave.”
“Internally, since they don’t have a way to discuss issues or communicate, it’s really a deadlock for them, and that keeps creating pressure. They had beaten him— [Chinese writer] Yu Jie— terribly, because he is related to Christianity, and that is what they hate the most or are scared of the most. They are scared of any form of unity. They wouldn’t be scared of me if I don’t get on Twitter, because on Twitter I can form a community. But, as individuals, they don’t care about you. So they crash down on people quite terribly, and subject people to abuse. I don’t think Yu Jie could stay any longer. In that kind of situation, you just have to say, ‘This is not possible,’” Ai said.
But, I asked, is the tax bureau his real counterpart in this, or does his case have its origins somewhere else in the government?
“This is something I’m always wondering. Because now people are putting out a lot of information, saying, oh, some official’s staff is saying that if they knew it was going to happen, they wouldn’t have allowed it, that it was a mistake. But I don’t really believe it. It’s some kind of political struggle. But who is using what? You will never know. It’s a struggle between them. It’s a secret.” He has his theories—mostly, that the arrest was not an impulsive decision, but one that took preparation and approval from high up.
“The first person who came to question me said he doesn’t know me, he’s just been assigned the job, and he had to go on the Internet to find out who I am. And I could tell from his questions, he had zero knowledge about me. But then another person arrived, and he said, ‘We prepared for a year. We checked your background for a long time, and we had a very difficult decision whether to arrest you or not. But we decided we had to.’” Ai tended to believe him. “But that person? I never saw him again. I always asked to see him again, but nobody ever seemed to have an answer.”