When Ai finally appeared, he asked very quietly: *”How do you find Beijing?”* (He doesn’t avoid eye contact as many artists do.) *”Paranoid,”* we replied. Ai waves a nonchalant hand, *”It’s the time of the big meetings,”* he says.

The artist is referring to The National People’s Congress, where the Chinese government will roll-out its 12th five-year plan at the Great Hall of The People. He seems genuinely uninterested in such affairs, but he clearly is. In the past two years, Ai’s art and life have become indistinguishable. His works are charged with potent political context. He’s been beaten, bugged, monitored, gagged by the media, placed under house arrest and even had his Shanghai studio bulldozed to the ground. Such is his importance in China right now that any comment he makes regarding State policy (he’s an avid Twitterer, accessing the site through an overseas server) is immediately picked up by the international press. A London columnist recently went so far as to say that Ai was on the verge of becoming *”a cultural figure of serious global importance in the mould of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.”*

And yet the overwhelming reaction to his words, and his works, is a sort of bewildering amazement at his sheer bloody-minded bravery. And Ai knows it. He’s all too aware that intellectuals have been persecuted, jailed, killed or have simply vanished over the past 60 years for daring to question the all-powerful Communist Party. You only need look at his father, the poet Ai Qing, who served 26 years in political exile for daring to criticize Mao Zedong, to realise that Ai is fully prepared to accept the consequences of his very public actions. It’s on this troubling matter that our interview began.

When I told colleagues in Hong Kong and Europe that I would be interviewing you today, they were genuinely concerned for your wellbeing. So let’s begin with that: how are you?
*This is becoming difficult to answer. My situation is like the studio I’m living in right now. It’s full of problems, but at the same time it’s very peaceful, yet full of crisis. For example, the car park, in that direction, has had a car watching me for over a week, day and night, two people sitting inside, even during the snowfall.*

How closely are you being monitored?
*Sometimes it’s one car, sometimes it’s three cars. Undercover police. This is becoming such an absurd picture. If you walk into Beijing city centre you see people are quite comfortable, nothing in crisis; but there is a lot of problems I think.*

How has your personal safety been these past few days?
*My safety is actually OK. I think if you watch the secret police you are especially OK. They will make sure nothing happens to you. But they are still trying to remind you that everything is under their control. Remember, this is the period of year where congressional meetings will take place, and so now that the Jasmine Revolution has been made, everybody is so nervous.*

Is the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ a genuine online movement?
*Yes, because China censors the entire internet and really crashes down on those who have opinions of why this society should be changed. In the past two weeks, over 100 people have been arrested. Some are long-time writers, scholars, lawyers; some are just one-time students saying ‘let’s meet on a certain corner, a certain street.’ It’s very strong. Many universities will not allow students to come out, mainly because teachers have received a certain note ordering them to do their duty, otherwise they will be in trouble, or their school will be in trouble. So the country is very tight right now. The true result is that China is controlling universities more than ever before over these past 18 days. The government cannot afford to lose this battle. But another factor is that the people who have strong beliefs for change have become ever more necessary.*

The word ‘jasmine’ has been blocked on the internet. President’s Hu’s ‘jasmine song’ has disappeared. Foreign journalists have been kicked and punched for standing on the street. How severe has the police reaction been to what is essentially a non-demonstration?
*Firstly, on the Chinese internet you cannot type any sentence with the word ‘tomorrow’ in it – the word ‘tomorrow’ has become a sensitive word.*

*Because maybe people will say, ‘Tomorrow we will all walk in Wang Fu Jing.’ [The central area in Beijing for the recent jasmine protest activity]. At the same time you cannot type, ‘today’. The machine will just take anything with ‘today’ in it. [Laughs] It’s really amazing that you can’t use the words ‘tomorrow’ and ‘today’. So you can see how extremely nervous they have become. And there’s no discussion, no intellectual exchanges or argument. It’s so much like Chinese parents from the olden times, where the children just had to listen to them without showing any sign of disagreement, or questioning, or different attitudes. To try and challenge the economic and political situation today is not going to be OK. That is going to be devastating. This nation has had no creativity for the past 100 years.*

I wonder. Usually, where there has been an economic boom, there is also a corresponding burst in creativity. But in Chinese culture there has been no advancement at all. Why is that?
*Because the economic revolution has come from a military result, from violence. The group of people who control the power do not believe in spiritual freedom, individualism, or the freedom of speech. Those are all the bad words for any kind of military action. Every few years they re-establish the same power, with the same group of people, or their relatives. But they don’t know how to control it at all, I think.*

But as Shelley said, “Ye are many, they are few.” Why do the masses not revolt?
*Because the structure of our society after these 60 years of very brutal control, especially the first 40 years, has crushed all the intellectuals who have held a different opinion. They have been punished, or jailed, or killed. So there is almost no way to do it. The last performance was Tiananmen Square [1989]. So people have realised that this state can do anything to crush the concept of freedom.*

But when the Chinese come together, they really do come together…
*Yes, but that can be terrifying also. It’s just like the land in China. Every year there is either too much water or it’s a draught. There is no in-between. It’s either a few drops of rain or a flood. It’s been a hundred years like this, and it’s getting worse and worse because society has many levels of need. Now it’s creating interest through capitalism principals, but before you were either a worker or a leader, and that is very difficult.*

Premier Wen Jiabao this month ordered government officials to “make people happy” by “being happy”. Do you find his comments insulting?
*I think that person is a little bit worried, and perhaps unhappy himself. If you look at the period of time he has been there, all the problems have become worse since he first arrived. He wants to be remembered in history as a nice man.*

And is he a nice man?
*He won’t be remembered as a great man so he wants to be remembered as a nice man. But this is not possible, because the Chinese people will remember someone not by what he says but by what kind of change he made. There has been no change. There has been no benefit. In fact it has been collapsing.*

A Chinese journalist warned me: “If you interview Ai Weiwei then you stand opposite my government.” This is an interesting phrase. Do you find it strange?
*Yes. Anybody who carefully listens to what I am saying will come to the same conclusion. This is a society lacking in discussion, in frankness. That’s why we have such media control, because nobody can afford to discuss different viewpoints. ‘It’s not my problem,’ is the usual excuse, because otherwise it will cause you some trouble. But I am not opposite this government. Any government in any country which has problems must be examined by its citizens, or by individuals. Criticism is healthy.*

Last month, a young Chinese person was arrested and detained in Beijing for placing a white flower on the ground. Do you find it ridiculous, three years after the Olympics, that someone in downtown Beijing can be arrested for placing a flower on the ground?
*It’s absurd for you, but not so absurd for us, because you can be sentenced here for putting up Tweets. The internet is designed as a space for discussion, for different opinions, so how can a government after 60 years in control be unable to take even a small slight? They can’t take opinions. They can’t take different viewpoints. They are going further and further in the opposite direction of democracy. On the surface it looks fine, with glamorous meetings such as the Olympics or the Shanghai EXPO. But Shanghai destroyed my studio in just one night. They paid a lot of money to build it, but they also paid to destroy it.*

Was that a painful experience, or did the bulldozing become a work of art in itself?
*As an artist I can deal with my pain and my joy, so I saw this destruction as a new possibility. Of course, for anybody it would be a painful experience, but if you see art as a conclusion then you will only see destruction. Yet if you see art as a beginning then the action takes things one step further and becomes meaningful. I’m not saying it wasn’t extremely hard to handle, but the statement of bulldozing the studio by the government clearly showed people what kind of state we are in.*

It was an extremely powerful symbol.
*Yes, extremely.*

…..[edited down for on-screen length]

You have a lot of hope placed on your shoulders. Can you handle it?
*There is a lot of pressure but it makes you feel so much stronger because you are now related to a large number of people’s hope and you can do something to benefit that. It’s worthwhile to say something to change the conditions of other people.*

What do you want to say?
*I want to say that young people should have equal opportunity, commit to a challenge, and be free to enjoy their life rather than sacrifice themselves for other people’s excuses. I want people to have a spirited life, truly independent, maybe poorly but still strong in mind. That’s not too much to ask.*

Full interview-story at *Time Out Hong Kong*: