Ai Weiwei to west: tackle China on human rights whatever the cost
‘It doesn’t matter it will hurt me or not – do what you think is right’: celebrated artist says Beijing has axed rule of law for anyone with contrary political views
Ai Weiwei speaks at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Western governments should challenge China on human rights and stand up for their principles, dissident artist Ai Weiwei has said – lamenting the repression faced by Chinese activists but declaring that Beijing’s “business partners” in the rest of the world should not fear making it worse.
One of the world’s most famous living artists, Ai has long run foul of Chinese authorities, culminating in 81 days of detention in 2011 amid a wider crackdown on political dissent. He was subsequently banned from travelling overseas for more than four years and his passport was confiscated.
“It doesn’t matter it will hurt me or not, you have to do what you think is right,” Ai said during an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “You have to believe they have to listen. You know, they have to care about their business partner … or they have to respect.”
He encouraged western governments to maintain pressure on China, even with the potential that it may lead to harsh treatment for activists. In recent years more and more foreign politicians have been willing to forgo discussions of human rights issues in order to forge closer economic ties with Beijing.
Since Xi Jinping took power in 2012 China has launched a wide-ranging crackdown on civil society, with hundreds of lawyers and activists arrested or jailed as the authorities have become less tolerant of any speech challenging the Communist party line.
“If you touch any political issues there’s no such thing as rule of law,” Ai said. “It’s getting really very bad, I should say, the situation. It’s almost no space.”
He lamented the fact that even the lawyers who defended the “basic rights of their clients” had become targets of the authorities.
“You just defend some people being wrongly accused, you can be put in jail,” Ai said. “And many of them are being falsely accused without trial, they’re still in jail.”
Xia Lin, a lawyer who previously defended Ai and other activists, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in September on fraud charges. Many saw the conviction as revenge for defending high-profile political clients.
More than 200 lawyers and activists were detained in a nationwide sweep last summer, with certain law firms apparently targeted because of their client lists.
Ai’s more recent work has turned away from critiques of the Chinese government and focused instead on Syrian refugees and a series of Lego portraits of celebrated human rights crusaders from around the world.
At a recent exhibition in Reading prison where author Oscar Wilde was once held, Ai contributed a piece that detailed his detention, where he had to ask permission to scratch his head or sip water, and guards stood over him as he showered and slept.
He has compared the conditions he experienced to those faced by refugees in Europe, saying that although he experienced extreme and violent treatment in China, he “could never have imagined conditions like this”.
Sounds pretty bad, eh? Well if you want America to become just like that, be sure to vote for Donald Trump.