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.

Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Sport
Jose Mourinho restrains his assistant manager Rui Faria, Fabio Borini celebrates his winning penalty and Connor Wickham equalises for Sunderland
sportChelsea 1 Sunderland 2: Deafeat is extra bitter as former Chelsea player Fabio Borini scores late penalty to seal victory
Arts & Entertainment
Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has been working on the novels since the mid-Nineties
books
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Easter a dangerous time for dogs
these are the new ones. Old ones are below them... news
News
Brand said he
people
Sport
Roger Federer celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters
sport
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
film
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit