Exclusive: days before David Cameron visits China, acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei tells Channel 4 News how he was placed under house arrest on Friday as he was about to leave Beijing for Shanghai.
Ai Weiwei, the internationally renowned Chinese artist, has given his first UK interview for broadcast to Channel 4 News since he was placed under house arrest by the authorities in China on Friday.
Weiwei had planned to hold a party at his studio in Shanghai on Sunday ahead of its demolition, but was detained at his Beijing home on Friday afternoon.
He told April Brown for Channel 4 News: “First, they want to destroy my studio, I just learned. Then I want to have a party. Now they’re putting me under house arrest, so that means I cannot really go to there – even live in the house.”
Describing the circumstances of his house arrest, he said: “Yesterday, about 1.30, the Beijing municipal police come – a total of about 12, 13 of them. And they announced I’m under house arrest because (of) the party I’m holding in Shanghai.
Now they’re putting me under house arrest, so that means I cannot really go to Shanghai – even live in the house. Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist
“So that means I cannot leave my home for Shanghai and the party has to be cancelled.”
Ai Weiwei explained that he refused to tell his friends he was cancelling the party. The decision to place him under house arrest, he said, came just before he was about to leave for Shanghai.
He suggested he had been placed under house arrest because of the number of people – 1,000 – who were due to attend the Shanghai party.
He concedes in the interview that he has made several movies about human rights and civil rights in China, focusing on Shanghai. “That’s why they don’t want me to be there. They have to destroy my studio there and to accuse me illegally.”
Interfering with the business of business
Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum told Alex Thomson that the Chinese were particularly angered by the award of the Nobel peace prize in October to Liu Xiaobo, the human rights activist.
She said the Chinese had sent a letter to countries with ambassadors in Norway warning them not to attend the Nobel peace prize ceremony in Oslo – this was the context in which David Cameron was visiting China later this week. “It’s going to be extremely difficult for them,” she said.
Lindsey Hilsum said that the British delegation would raise the issue of human rights “in a ritualistic manner”. She went on: “This stuff is extremely sensitive. Britain certainly won’t want to interfere with the business of business, which is what they’re going to be there for.”
It’s not a situation where it’s easy to raise uncomfortable issues like human rights. Lindsey Hilsum
David Cameron wants China to help him improve the British economy, she explained. There was $39bn of trade between the United Kingdom and China in 2009. “He (David Cameron) wants the trade balance changed so Britain is exporting more to China.”
She continued: “Also, China is the coming power. It is a huge power on the world stage now (…) They are beginning to set up in Europe.
“David Cameron is going there is going there with a specific agenda, to say: ‘Come and have your European headquarters in London. Don’t go to Paris or Berlin.'”
Lindsey Hilsum concluded that with everyone competing for a piece of the Chinese action, it is not a situation where it is easy to raise the issue of human rights.
In October Ai Weiwei appeared on Channel 4 News to discuss the award of the Nobel peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese human rights activist currently serving 11 years in prison for subversion of state power.
He told Alex Thomson he did not think Liu Xiaobo’s award would affect Chinese government policies on freedom of speech and human rights “because they are quite stubborn on this matter”.
The Tate Modern in London is currently hosting a major Weiwei exhibition entitled Sunflower Seeds, in which the Turbine Hall has been filled more than one hundred million ceramic seeds.
Weiwei came to international prominence for his role in the design for the Beijing National Stadium, known as the “bird’s nest”, which hosted the main events during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.