Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most famous artists and is considered by many to be one of the greatest living artists in the world. In collaboration with the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, he participated in the design of the Bird’s Nest Stadium, the centerpiece of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
The Beijing North Stadium, instantly recognizable by its weaving of curved steel beams, will also host the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics on February 4.
During the design phase, Ai hoped that the lattice shape of the stadium and the presence of the Olympics would symbolize China’s new openness. He was dissapointed. He repeatedly described the stadium and the 2008 Olympics as a “false smile” that China presented to the world.
Ai expects the Winter Games to offer the same.
Even before his fame landed him the job of designer, Ai had been a relentless critic of the Chinese Communist Party. He was jailed in 2011 in China for unspecified crimes and is now an outspoken dissident living in exile in Portugal. He has also lived in exile in Germany – he still maintains a studio there – and in Great Britain.
His art – ranging from sculpture and architecture to photography, video and writing – is almost always provocative, and he is scathing about censorship and the lack of civil liberties in his native country. .
His memoirs – “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.
Wrote in his memoirs: “The year I was born, Mao Zedong unleashed a political storm – the anti-rightist campaign, designed to purge ‘right-wing’ intellectuals who had criticized the government. The whirlwind that engulfed my father turned my life upside down too, leaving a mark on me that I carry to this day.
He quotes his father: “Suppressing the voice of the people is the most cruel form of violence”.
Ai responded to a list of questions via 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, which is to design it as perfectly as possible,” Ai wrote to The Associated Press. “The way it was used afterwards went against 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 ultimately used as a promotional tool.
The 2008 Olympics are generally considered 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 called the 2008 Olympics a “low point” as migrant workers were expelled from the city, small shops were closed and street vendors removed, and billboards of several blocks have appeared, painted with palm trees and beach scenes to hide seedy neighborhoods as far as the eye can see.
“The entire Olympics was held under a blockade situation,” Ai told AP. “For the general public, there was no joy in participating. Instead, there was close collaboration between the International Olympic Committee and the Chinese regime, which put on a show together in order to gain economic and political capital.
Ai wrote in his book that he watched the opening ceremony away from the stadium on a television screen and noted the following.
“In this world where everything has a political dimension, we are now told that we should not politicize things: it is simply a sporting event, detached from history, ideas and values, even from human nature.”
The IOC and China say again that the Olympics are separate from politics. China, of course, has political goals in mind. For the IOC, the Olympics are a sporting enterprise that generates billions in sponsorship and television revenue.
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 the Chinese government to better shape its message. The Olympics did not change China in the way suggested by the IOC, nor did it promote civil liberties. Instead, China used the Olympics to alter the way it was perceived on the world stage and to signal its rise to power.
The 2008 Games were followed a month later by the global financial crisis, and in 2012 by the rise of General Secretary Xi Jinping. Xi was a senior politician responsible for the 2008 Olympics, but the 2022 Games are his.
“Since 2008, the Chinese government has further tightened its control, and the human rights situation has further deteriorated,” Ai told AP. “China saw the West’s hypocrisy and inaction on human rights, so they became even bolder, more unscrupulous and more ruthless. In 2022, China will impose stricter constraints on the Internet and political life, including human rights, the press and We-media. The CCP does not care whether or not the West participates in the Games because China is convinced that the West is sufficiently busy with its own affairs.
Ai called the 2022 Winter Olympics and the pandemic an opportune time for China’s authoritarian government. The pandemic will limit the movement of journalists during the Games and will also highlight the Orwellian control of the state.
“China, under the system of state capitalism and especially after COVID, firmly believes that its administrative control is the only effective method; this reinforces their belief in authoritarianism. Meanwhile, China thinks the West, with its ideas of democracy and freedom, can hardly gain effective control. Thus, the 2022 Olympics will further testify to the effectiveness of authoritarianism in China and the frustration of Western democratic regimes.
Ai has repeatedly criticized the IOC as an enabler; only interested in generating revenue from the Chinese market. Both the IOC and China view the Games as a business opportunity. Ai suggested that many Chinese see the Olympics as another political exercise with some – like the athletes – trying to extract value from it.
“In China, there are only Party councils, state-controlled media and people who have been brainwashed by the media,” Ai wrote. “There is no real civil society. Under these circumstances, the Chinese are not at all interested in the Olympics because it is simply a show of state policy. Nationally trained athletes trade Olympic gold medals for economic gains for individuals or even sports organizations; this way of doing things departs from the original ideas of the Olympiques.
Ai was asked if he plans to return to China. He said he doubted.
“Judging by the current situation, it is increasingly unlikely that I will be able to return to China,” he said. “My main point here is that the situation in China has deteriorated. Boycotting the West is futile and unnecessary. China doesn’t care at all.
AP Sports Writer Stephen Wade reported for The Associated Press from Beijing for 2½ years in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics, plus the aftermath.
More AP Winter Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports