Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most famous artists, and many regard him as one of the world’s greatest living ones. Working with the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, he helped design the Bird’s Nest Stadium, the centerpiece of Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics.
The stadium in northern Beijing, instantly recognizable for its weave of curving steel beams, will also host the opening ceremony for Beijing’s Winter Olympics on Feb. 4.
In the design phase, Ai hoped the stadium’s latticework form and the presence of the Olympics would symbolize China’s new openness. He was disappointed. He has repeatedly described the stadium and the 2008 Olympics as a “fake smile” that China presented to the world.
Ai expects the Winter Games to offer more of the same.
Even before his fame landed him the design job, Ai had been an unrelenting critic of the Chinese Communist Party. He was jailed in 2011 in China for unspecified crimes and is now an outspoken dissident who lives in exile in Portugal. He has also lived in exile in Germany — he still maintains a studio there — and in Britain.
His art — ranging from sculpture to architecture to photography, video and the written word — is almost always provocative, and he’s scathing about censorship and the absence of civil liberties in his native country.
His memoir — “1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows” — was published last year and details the overlap of his life and career with that of his father Ai Qing, a famous poet who was sent into internal exile in 1957, the year Ai Weiwei was born.
Ai writes in his memoir: “The year I was born, Mao Zedong unleashed a political storm — the Anti-Rightist Campaign, designed to purge “rightist” intellectuals who had criticized the government. The whirlpool that swallowed up my father upended my life too, leaving a mark on me that I carry to this day.”
He quotes his father: “To suppress the voices of the people is the cruelest form of violence.”
Ai responded to a list of questions by email from the Associated Press. He used his dashed hopes for the Bird’s Nest to illustrate how China has changed since 2008.
“As an architect my goal was the same as other architects, that is, to design it as perfectly as possible,” Ai wrote to Associated Press. “The way it was used afterwards went in the opposite direction from our ideals. We had hoped that our architecture could be a symbol of freedom and openness and represent optimism and a positive force, which was very different from how it was used as a promotional tool in the end.”
The 2008 Olympics are usually seen as a “coming out” party for China, When the IOC awarded Beijing the Olympics in 2001, it said they could help improve human rights. Ai, instead, termed the 2008 Olympics a “low point” as migrant workers were forced out of the city, small shops were shuttered and street vendors removed, and blocks-long billboards popped up, painted with palm trees and beach scenes to hide shabby neighborhoods from view.
“The entire Olympics took place under the situation of a blockade,” Ai told AP. “For the general public there was no joy in participation. Instead, there was a close collaboration between International Olympic Committee and the Chinese regime, who put on a show together in order to obtain economic and political capital.”
Ai writes in his book that he watched the opening ceremony away from the stadium on a television screen, and jotted down the following.
“In this world where everything has a political dimension, we are now told we mustn’t politicize things: this is simply a sporting event, detached from history and ideas and values — detached from human nature, even.”
The IOC and China again say the Olympics are divorced from politics. China, of course, has political ends in mind. For the IOC, the Olympics are a sports business that generates billions in sponsor and television income.
In his email, Ai described China as emboldened by the 2008 Olympics — “more confident and uncompromising.” He said the 2008 Olympics were a “negative” that allowed China’s government to better shape its message. The Olympics did not change China in ways the IOC suggested, or foster civil liberties. Instead, China used the Olympics to alter how it was perceived on the world stage and to signal its rising power.
The 2008 Games were followed a month later by the world financial crisis, and in 2012 by the rise of General Secretary Xi Jinping. Xi was a senior politician in charge of the 2008 Olympics, but the 2022 Games are his own.
“Since 2008 the government of China has further strengthened its control and the human rights situation has further deteriorated,” Ai told AP. “China has seen the West’s hypocrisy and inaction when it comes to issues of human rights, so they have become even bolder, more unscrupulous, and more ruthless. In 2022 China will impose more stringent constraints to the Internet and political life, including human rights, the press, and We-media. The CCP does not care if the West participates in the Games or not because China is confident that the West is busy enough with their own affairs.”
Ai characterized the 2022 Winter Olympics and the pandemic as a case of fortunate timing for China’s authoritarian government. The pandemic will limit the movement of journalists during the Games, and it will also showcase the state’s Orwellian control.
“China, under the system of state capitalism and especially after COVID, firmly believes that its administrative control is the only effective method; this enhances their belief in authoritarianism. Meanwhile, China thinks that the West, with its ideas of democracy and freedom, can hardly obtain effective control. So, the 2022 Olympics will further testify to the effectiveness of authoritarianism in China and the frustration of the West’s democratic regimes.”
Ai was repeatedly critical of the IOC as an enabler; interested solely in generating income from the Chinese market. The IOC and China both see the Games as a business opportunity. Ai suggested many Chinese see the Olympics as another political exercise with some — like athletes — trying to extract value.
“In China there is only the Party’s guidance, state-controlled media, and people who have been brainwashed by the media,” Ai wrote. “There is no real civil society. Under this circumstance, Chinese people are not interested in the Olympics at all because it is simply a display of state politics. Nationally trained athletes exchange Olympic gold medals for economic gains for individuals or even for sport organizations; this way of doing things deviates from the Olympics’ original ideas.”
Ai was asked if the planned to go back to China. He said he was doubtful.
“Judging from the current situation, it is more and more unlikely for me to be able to return to China,” he said. “My main point here is that the situation in China has worsened. The West’s boycott is futile and pointless. China does not care about it at all.”
AP Sports Writer Stephen Wade reported for The Associated Press from Beijing for 2 1/2 years in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, and also the follow-up.