The Chinese government is bent on crushing dissent, and Western governments are moving in the same direction. From an interview with Ai Weiwei at repubblica.it:
An exclusive interview with the most famous Chinese artist, dissident and activist on Beijing expanding his power, the European countries “like Italy begging for China’s money”, the death of Europe as we know it, human rights under attack, the comeback of the 1930s and the “total failure of today’s intellectuals”
LONDON. Ai Weiwei, 61, is the most famous Chinese artist and dissident, he is based in Berlin but this week he came to London for a couple of cultural initiatives. Moreover, he met Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder jailed in a London prison and now at risk of extradition. Ai has always been a prominent advocate of Assange’s cause but in this interview done in a West London hotel he talks also about Hong Kong protests, the decay of both Europe and the West, the “total failure” of intellectuals nowadays and why our times are similar to the 1930s.
Mr Ai Weiwei, what do you think about the Hong Kong demonstrations? Are they going to be successful?
“Well, Hong Kong’s demonstrations are very grand scale, it’s very impressive. But I would not measure the demonstration as successful or not. If the demonstration has content or meaning, then a demonstration is always successful. There were over one million people in the streets in Hong Kong. China’s political inference wants to make Hong Kong become another Mainland-controlled territory. According to reports, 90 percent of the people taking part in the demostrations are from 19 to 25 years old. That shows great hope for a new generation of Chinese. And I’m deeply impressed to see young people organizing it on such a scale, but rationally, peacefully and making a continuous effort in trying to protect Hong Kong’s freedom. That is extremely interesting. And also it’s a new lesson for the world to know. There are people who are concerned about China’s brutal violations of human rights, also because China is trying to expand its influence in territories where law, freedom and democracy are established”.
Do you think that China is going to increase its influence on other territories in the future or on the contrary these demonstrations in HK show that something is going to happen maybe one day in China too?
“When the Chinese Communist Party started, in the Twenties, there were just eleven people on that boat, not the dozens of millions of so-called communist members today. They never stopped to expand or try to influence the other people. China now has a new economic status which is big and strong, it has become one of the two major powers in the world. Like it or not, China will expand its influence globally and we see what has happened in the United States and Europe. European countries offered their head to the new Chinese “emperor”, taking money from Bejing: Italy did it [with Belt and Road initiative, ndr], France did it, England did it. The USA instead are clear in defending their own power. Maybe it’s a bit too late but nevertheless a lot needs to be done. Because you’re dealing with a society, China, which doesn’t accept democracy, doesn’t accept freedom of speech, doesn’t accept independent judicial system. It’s not a society of rule of law but they’re ruled by law. So, under the law there is only a person who is the ruler. So that is a very dangerous condition. Europe knows it very well but they pretend not to because they need China. They have been pretending it for a long time but in reality many countries like Italy say “I don’t care” because of money. So those countries become like beggars for China: “Give me the money and I’ll do anything for you”. Yes, it is such a pity to see the European society and the Western society doing this, because they have always been considered quite strong through their humanity, rule of law, democratic society. But this has collapsed so fast, in every aspect”.
Do you think that this collapse of Western values is going to get worse?
“Yes, it’s going to get worse because Europeans have been sleeping for quite a long time. They have been quite corrupted in many ways, also spiritually. Then they’ve already forgot what happened to Europe in the 1930s, 1940s. The Europeans have so much benefited by dealing with unfortunate countries such as China and many others and have taken advantage of that and profit from other people’s misfortune. But today they have to make some choices. Do they want to lose the ground? Then this will be the last time for European countries, or maybe they won’t have another choice. Or do they still have such Western values in defending humanity as the most important legacy of civilization? That’s what made the Europe that we know. Otherwise there’s no such thing that could be called Europe anymore”.
Do you think that Europe has to be more involved in the Hong Kong demonstrations?
“Yes, Europe has to be more involved. Hong Kong was Britain’s colonial land and was handed back to China with a clear treaty. It should remain under the “One nation, two systems” scheme for 50 years or so. But China, as a nation, sees everything with very clear strategy. China will not allow Hong Kong to become an independent state or system. So the struggle is going to persist and it cannot be solved unless China changes it. But China never changes itself. It doesn’t matter how strong China will become, it will remain the same politically: this is the real trouble. Can the world build such a strong opposition against it? Because, at the end, China will challenge everybody”.
Can Hong Kong demonstrations become a sort of event like Tiananmen, whose 30th anniversary now has just been celebrated?
“Hong Kong government basically is a puppet government of China, it has never really been publicly elected. So most likely, if they don’t change their mind, this slightly chance [of a new Tienanmen] is there. They are Hong Kong. So this is not exactly China. The extradition law now has been delayed and this is good. But if they don’t scrap it then the conflicts are going to stay because young people will not let the law go through. That’s a critical line of their life. So, yes, it can happen, it happened with the tanks 30 years ago, when it all started peacefully and then they had to use military and tanks. We cannot forget such lessons. Still today, China insists that crashing such demonstrations is necessary and right. And they said that about Hong Kong: “There are no peaceful demonstrations, this is a riot”. When you categorize such actions as a riot, you have a different laws to deal with it”.
So are you concerned that crashing demonstrations in HK can be a likely outcome?
“Oh Yes. Yes. It’s absolutely possible. Most likely outcome if the clash exaggerates”.
Like it was in Tiananmen?
“Yeah, yeah. Because, as I said, the incumbent government refuses to negotiate. They refuse to discuss matters. There’s no such state as Chinese totalitarian society, which ignores the public opinion or the masses”.
More specifically on the extradition law: why do you think it may be so dangerous and what’s your opinion about the HK leader Carrie Lam?
“These Hong Kong leaders are in their position only because they are recognized by the Chinese Communist Party. And the Communist Party has been very careful in selecting those people. Since the 1940s Hong Kong became a base of a secret communist party. So they have a strong underground system of inference in Hong Kong that controls everything, not only the power structure but also the economic, financial, business sectors. They have been very clear: Hong Kong is very important for China. So far Beijing has used Hong Kong’s freedom as a “free” communist base to work with the West. That was a clear strategy. But now they don’t need this anymore”.
“Because now China has Shenzen, Shanghai. All the Western companies have a love affair with China. They don’t need Hong Kong anymore, they have many more choices available. So that’s why China thinks this is a moment that they can take Hong Kong back to “their pocket” and stop pretending it is independent”.
So you don’t believe, as the HK government says, that this extradition law is just to cover legal loopholes.
“They always have an excuse. China has always clearly showed that is not ruled by law. Chinese own lawyers disappear, or stay in jail for years without having the chance to see a lawyer or a relative. And if you write something on social Internet the police would knock on your door and order you to delete your sentence. China is the most extreme society in controlling individuals’ mind and their behaviour. That is probably the perfect form of modern totalitarianism in the peace time. What can you do worst to control generations’ mind? Of course, they don’t kill them, because they are still valuable as slaves of the state, because they belong to the state, to one political party. So this is a kind of superpower. It almost doesn’t seem real. It’s like a dystopian novel. It’s very easy to understand why such extradition laws like the one in HK should not deal with China. China certainly is the last place to arrange such a law. Many European nations do have such extradition treaties with China. But that’s a terrible mistake. Because someone like me, an artist, who has a different opinion can be extradited to China if a law of this kind is in place. China has been kidnapping even book publishers from neighbor states and still nobody questions it. This is a matter related to the international order. Of course this is kind of hypocritical but look what happened with the Khashoggi case: now the U.S. and the West seem ok with it. So why not dealing with China? But citizens have to defend that and decide their own fate. So that’s why it’s so precious and valuable to preserve Hong Kong’s rights and demonstrations”.
This week you visited Assange in the London prison where he is jailed. How did you find him and why is he so important for you?
“I have been following the Assange case for a long time. I already visited him at Ecuador embassy in London three years ago and then Assange was in much better shape: he was joking, had humor and the condition was not as bad as today. He’s losing weight dramatically [reportedly 20 lbs so far]. But he still has good spirit. He still believes that what he did was right. His mind is clear. However, he is terribly exhausted by the jail and the hospital and what can happen to him in the future. He must not be extradited to the US, for a few reasons. Europe is known to respect the law, respect humanity and human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of information. What Julian did is just providing a possibility in 21st century to give those information being held by the state structures in many ways. Dark, unspeakable matters that couldn’t be shown to the public. However, if a democracy limits certain important informations, you limit the freedom of the public, the knowledge and the possibility to make a choice. So if the individual cannot make a free choice what kind of freedom are we talking about? What Assange did is extremely valuable. And this is injustice from the UK to put him in jail for whatever the reason. And it would be a bigger injustice from a European state to extradite him, delivering him to another state which has a bad record in human rights”.
But how do you comment the fact that Assange is accused to have break the law more than once and some critics say he is really close to Russia?
“Anybody in his position would be clearly attacked by all kinds of fake information because he has never had a real chance to “clear himself”, to prove his innocence. When I was arrested, the Chinese government accused me of at least on 10 different counts, for instance. And this is very amusing. It’s surprising even to hear about it. If Assange is in a position to defend his innocence properly, none of those accusations are going to work. In the Western law the basic, most important idea is that you’re innocent until proven guilty, isn’t it?”.
So do you mean that Assange couldn’t defend himself from the accusations he is facing?
“How could he defend himself? He will not be under a clear law environment if he is taken to the US or already now as he has been holding in Europe, UK. Julian Assange is a political prisoner. Clearly. There is no clearer definition than that. What Assange did is not more than any newspaper does or publish important information that they think the people need to know. I think that if Assange is extradited, it will have huge consequences not just to it but also to the European moral or legal system. And it would completely redefine Europe as a place not caring about human rights anymore. Unfortunately this is happening all the time. But this time it will be clearly remembered as a landmark of the failure of our times. It’s very interesting if you look at what’s happening about extradition. There are three cases about that going on in the world: Hong Kong, Assange and Huawei case, here the daughter of the founder is jailed in Canada because the US asked her extradition. I don’t know if she is a political prisoner but for sure she is part of the US strategy to limit China’s development in the world and the possibility of becoming a global leader. I’m not saying if it is right or wrong but it is fair this kind of situation. These three cases resemble a very interesting judicial challenge. At this moment after globalization the whole political structure of the world is being restored. Now it’s starting to be challenged at the foundation of our rules, how do you readjust those rules and how to protect individuals’ freedom from the interest of state powers. That is a new task that any establishment of rule has to be concerned with. Nobody had put this together. This is an issue now embodied by different characters but actually it is one character.
Are you still optimistic in this world?
“Of course I trust humans, in theory they have the ability to adjust their political structure and judgment and the law. But I trust humans if they’re aware or smart enough to do it and it’s not difficult. It depends on how smart we are and what kind of awareness we have if we all believe that certain things need to be done. But it takes a struggle. That’s why we need demonstrations. We need many more demonstrations globally. We need a lot of younger people to be aware and we need a true revolution in our minds to re-establish our understanding of our humanity and human rights”.
Does Assange think that he can avoid extradition?
“There is still “space” there. If Europe or the UK rationally decide to respect the law and respect humanity and respect freedom of Information and the press, then there are still some chances too. But this is very hard to predict. Of course he is really very grateful for any kind of public support”.
But maybe Assange now has less public support than before.
“True, but I am not surprised, because most media are part of big corporations with their interests and they are not really defending him strongly. The excuse for them is Assange’s character, behaviour, personal life, which I think has nothing to do with the ideology”.
You mentioned the necessity of new demonstrations for humanity. You have also been a celebrated advocate of the migrants. Everywhere in the world racism and xenophobia grow. What do you think about that?
“The moment racism and xenophobia rises so fascism rises, when everybody wants a purified state. It’s the root of nazism against an open society, a more integrated society, a more colorful culture. So, this is a very critical moment. It is up to intellectuals and artists to defend those very common essential values”.
But maybe especially in Europe today many artists and intellectuals are more silent than in the past.
“Yes, and this is a failure. Basically today’s intellectuals and artists are a total failure. They profit from their salaries or for being decorated. They have become puppets of the power, they cannot question their masters, they are afraid of not being chosen anymore or abandoned. Because they haven’t a true individual mind. They’re not equipped with brilliant ideas. They’re scared of themselves”.
Do you think we are in a similar situation as in the 1930s?
“We are not far from it. Today people can be easily divided by the claim that “this problem is caused by these other people”. But the problem is inside us. Nobody is ready to make a change and change is always painful. So that means that the situation can only get worse. Until one day people may learn something from it”.