An artist's struggle for justice in China

Beaten to within an inch of his life, Ai Weiwei is still defiant.

When you walk in to Ai Weiwei's studio in Beijing's Chuangyi art district, your eye is immediately drawn to the rows of A4 paper that make up a large rectangle on one wall. Each of these sheets of paper bears a set of names. There are 5,250 in total. They are the children who perished in the Sichuan earthquake two years ago.

It is a typically uncompromising statement from an artist and activist as well known for his criticism of the Communist Party as he is for his design work on the famous Bird's Nest Olympic stadium. And if Ai Weiwei does not take care, his political outspokenness may well land him in hot water – a prospect he views with equanimity.

But for today at least, Mr Ai's thoughts are not on Sichuan, or his own fate. Today he is worried about his neighbours. Artists themselves, they have just been attacked by thugs trying to force them out of their studios to make way for real-estate developments.

"Several were hit and injured, it was very bloody. They came to me to ask advice," said Mr Ai.

The artists decided to march on Tiananmen Square, site of the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in June 1989. They didn't get very far, but a point was made. "The decision was made to demolish this art base to obtain more land for the local government to sell – the government grabbed the land," said Mr Ai.

He attracts so much attention from people with grievances and complaints that you wonder how long his constant barrage of criticism will be tolerated. Other outspoken critics such as Hu Jia and Liu Xiaobo are already in jail.

"I've been doing too much, I realise this. It's a pity I've become this figure. Every time I say I shouldn't do so much because I'm putting myself in an awkward position but life's not like that. I'm not scared to be in jail, I'd just have to deal with it," he said.

His credentials are impeccable, a true cultural blue-blood. He is the son of the poet Ai Qing, who was denounced during the Cultural Revolution and packed off to a labour camp in Xinjiang with his wife, Gao Ying. Ai Weiwei himself spent five years there. His wife, Lu Qing, is also an important artist, and he attended the Beijing Film Academy with top film-makers Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou.

But like his parents, his cultural standing has not kept him out of trouble. He has repeatedly placed himself into opposition with the government, a dangerous position in a single-party state. And his disdain for the powers-that-be shows no sign of abating. "The character of the Chinese government has changed to non-lawful, not using legal process, just for profit," he said. "It's a government with no ideology or vision. It's just about how to survive."

The paper on his wall is perhaps a symbol of that anger. In December 2008, Mr Ai started an investigation into the children who died in the Sichuan earthquake. The project was supported initially, but after researchers started asking why there were so many dead in some schools and not in others, things began to get awkward.

Police burst in to his hotel room in Chengdu at 3am on 12 August and beat him up so badly that surgeons in Munich later had to drill two holes in his head to remove 30ml of fluid from his skull.

"I almost got killed," he says now. "If it had been any more serious, I wouldn't be here. The point is if you want to make a point you are in danger. Whoever comes to this point will be crushed."

His colleague Tan Zuoren was jailed for five years for his work in helping compile data about earthquake victims.

"Tan was willing to take jail – someone has to do it. The real loser is the government. I feel sorrow to say it. China has no independent judicial system – everything is under Party control. It's all wrong because of the Party," he said.

Asked if he thinks Western governments do enough to confront China on rights issues, he said the situation was a bit like living next door to someone who is beating up their children.

"It's not your problem," he said. But ultimately the conscience will prevail. He hopes the same thing will happen to foreign countries that put business first.

"I think they will feel sorry, they will think about the people who work here, and what kind of society they are building up. Google did a good thing," he said, referring to the web giant's threat to quit China over cyber-assaults on dissidents' email and censorship.

"They made a statement. Making a statement is important to show you are not just an animal of profit making."

And Mr Ai, whatever else he is, is certainly a maker of bold statements. Asked about who inspires him, he says: "Me! Myself. I try to communicate with others and inspire people. The Dalai Lama is inspiring," he said.

Is Ai Weiwei an artist or an activist?

"Everything is art. Everything is politics. You can call it art or non-art, I don't give a damn," he said.

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, MVC-4, HTML5) London

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Web Develop...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution