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The Power of Art and the Internet for Chinese Dissident

Aired March 16, 2010 - 16:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the power of art and dissent in the digital age. We have a global exclusive with Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

Art and artists have always played a role in challenging political power, and that's because of art's unique ability to communicate directly with the public. That's especially significant in communist China, which has always tried to control both art and dissent. During the Cultural Revolution back in 1966 to 1976, great Chinese works were destroyed and millions of people were persecuted and jailed.

Now, the Internet age has introduced its own set of tensions. This week, Google moved closer to leaving China in a showdown over censorship.

We explore all of this with artist Ai Weiwei, whose outspoken criticism of China's government has won him world renown and it has also almost cost him his life.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Ai Weiwei has never been afraid to shatter the most potent symbols of Chinese culture and politics, in one photo series, dropping a priceless Han dynasty urn or painting Coca-Cola on another one, reflecting the commercialization of an ancient culture.

He helped design the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and then criticized the government for failing to use the Olympics to change its political ways.

But perhaps his bravest stance came after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan that killed thousands of schoolchildren. Ai Weiwei assembled activists to collect names of the dead and criticized on his blog the local government that allowed poorly built schools to crumble like sandcastles.

And that prompted a major exhibition in Munich called, "So Sorry," using the children's backpacks as a reminder of the young lives that were lost, and his feeling that Chinese officials responded weakly to the children's deaths.

AI WEIWEI, ARTIST: One day, one mother of the (inaudible) 7-years-old girl. But she said, "All I want is she to be remembered." You know, she had been happily living in this world for seven years.

AMANPOUR: His art has taken a personal toll. The Chinese government has shut down his blog. And when Ai Weiwei traveled to Sichuan last year to testify on behalf of another activist, he says police came to his hotel room and beat him on the head. He posted photos on Twitter.

And a month later, when installing his Munich show, he was rushed to emergency brain surgery. Again, on Twitter, he posted his belief that this was the result of the police beating. And he told his story once again to tens of thousands of people all around the world.


AMANPOUR: And now Ai Weiwei joins me in the studio. Welcome. Thank you for being here.


AMANPOUR: Let's start at the beginning, because you've really brought art to a major peak of dissent of right now, but let's start at the beginning with your own family's story. Your father -- and we have a picture of him right here in our desk with you -- he had a major influence on you. Tell me about your young years and your father's artistic experience.

WEIWEI: My father studied in Paris in 1930s. So in his 20s, he come back to China and he was put in jail immediately.

AMANPOUR: Why was he put in jail?

WEIWEI: Those young -- young artists, he was studying art, so they are prepared for a kind of demonstration. So the nationalistic party just put them in jail, just -- and he spent years in jail. And later, he joined the communist struggle.

AMANPOUR: And he was a hero of the Communist Party?

WEIWEI: For a while, he was. He was, because the Communist Party used his influence to really take a lot of young people to join the Communist Party.


AMANPOUR: Used his art, his poetry, and other works?

WEIWEI: Yes. Yes.

AMANPOUR: So then they cracked down on him, right, in the Cultural Revolution?

WEIWEI: Long before that, 1957, the year I was born, he was crashed (ph) with about 300,000 Chinese intellectuals.

AMANPOUR: What influence did that have on you, on your art today and on your activism today?

WEIWEI: From very young age, I start to understand this nation has no humanity. They crash down everybody who has different opinions, not even different opinions, just different attitude, you can cost (ph) your life.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you particularly about how you use imagery to express that view. We saw in that taped piece -- and we've got the images of how you shattered an ancient antique Han dynasty urn and how you painted Coca-Cola on anther one. What was the point of that? What were you trying to say?

WEIWEI: I tried to encourage people to look at our past in a critical way, because as our education, we always have a greater, greater history. But in the reality, we are poorest (inaudible) philosophy.

AMANPOUR: You're poor...

WEIWEI: So I tried to bring people's conscious, how we deal with our past.

AMANPOUR: And what does shattering the urn mean, then? Shattering history? Shattering perceptions?

WEIWEI: I think by shattering it, we can create a new form, new way to look at what is valuable, how we decide what is valuable.

AMANPOUR: You said the system has no humanity. I'm looking at these amazing pictures here of your painted vases. Again, these are Neolithic, you told me, even older than Han.


AMANPOUR: What do you say and how do you explain what you're talking about in terms of humanity? You say it has no humanity. What do you mean by that?

WEIWEI: Well, you see, a party system, which crashed down everybody who -- anybody who have different opinions, who have very different ideas in the mind, so this -- to simply to have a different opinions can cost their life, can be put in jail, can be silenced, and can be disappeared. And the other people would take a look at it without not -- with not even support.

AMANPOUR: So you're clearly really sort of working against that with your art, with your -- with your activism. How do you -- how do you make your dissent? How does art equal dissent?

WEIWEI: I think for me art has individual to use it, to express yourself, and to successfully communicate with others.

AMANPOUR: Well, what are you saying? And how are you using it?

WEIWEI: On myself, I try to -- try to search for the new way, always trying to set up a new possibility, and to find the new tools to express myself. So, you know, other to reach broader audience.

AMANPOUR: You were one of the artists who were chosen to do the so- called Bird's Nest, that incredible stadium that the Chinese government used for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and there we have that picture there.

But you then called for a boycott of the Olympics. I mean, why did you participate and then pull back?

WEIWEI: My participation is because the Swiss architect firm, Herzog & de Meuron, invited me. I'm never invited by the nation to do the work. So I dealing with as a architectural project. Of course we want China to have the Olympics, so through that, China will become a part of the international family, to share the same values.

But very soon, I realized this is -- it's impossible. You know, Chinese government or the party are using it as a propaganda base, so I have to say this has got nothing to do with me.

AMANPOUR: And then afterwards was the earthquake in 2008 in Sichuan. And that seemed to be a turning point for you. What about the earthquake made you so loud and insistent in your objection to the system?

WEIWEI: Well, I -- I grew up, my experience about this society is how the -- how they're dealing with the truth. Through the earthquake, we soon realized there's many, many hidden truths that would be revealed, such as how the students dead.

AMANPOUR: So the government was hiding the truth, then?

WEIWEI: Yes, the...

AMANPOUR: And how did you bring the truth out or try to?

WEIWEI: Well, we tried to ask very simple questions. Who is dead? For what reason and where? Which class it belongs to? And what's their birthday? So to in searching those names, the government -- we called the government.


They said, "You must be spy. You must be spy from United States if you want to know those informations. As an individual, why you want to know who's dead? And we'll never release it."

So we decided to form a kind of movement through the Internet to ask people who share the same kind of feelings to join us. So after a year of searching, we find about 5,000 names of those students, and their age, their name, and their family, and which schools it belongs to.

Very soon, we draw the conclusion, most students are dead within these 20 schools, and they're dead because of bad construction.

AMANPOUR: And you turned that into a work of art in Munich?

WEIWEI: Well, I'm always trying to find how to get the message through, so we custom-made 5,000...

AMANPOUR: Backpacks.

WEIWEI: ... backpacks of those students and to construct a simple sentence of the mother of a dead student.

AMANPOUR: Which was?

WEIWEI: It was, "She has been happily living in this world for seven years."

AMANPOUR: Before she was killed in the earthquake.


AMANPOUR: Just before we go to a break, how frightening or dangerous is it for you to use your work in such a high-profile way as a matter of political protest?

WEIWEI: I think it could be very dangerous, because people has been seen much less (ph), has been put in jail or disappeared. And in my case, I still am OK, besides I was beaten and almost ended my life. But I still -- it could be very dangerous.

AMANPOUR: And what makes you continue doing it?

WEIWEI: Well, the reason is very simple. I don't want to be part of the covered truth (ph), you know? I don't want to be part of this kind of denying of the reality. We live in this time. We have to speak out.

AMANPOUR: All right. We're going to continue that, and we're going to talk about protest and activism in the digital surface, in the digital sphere. When we come back, we'll have more with Ai Weiwei in a moment.

And we'll also be joined by U.S. media innovator Pat Mitchell.

And we have a conversation on our Facebook page on whether social media can fundamentally change how people talk to their governments. We'll discuss all of that with our guests next, so stay with us.




WEIWEI: (inaudible) maybe not responsible for that (inaudible) yes or no?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's a lot of people waiting for your answer.

JACK DORSEY, FOUNDER OF TWITTER: I would say -- I would say, yes, it's just a matter of time.


AMANPOUR: That was Ai Weiwei in New York last night featured at an event on social media and digital activism and talking about the power of Twitter.


He joins me again in the studio. And also, we're joined by Pat Mitchell, the president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media, which hosted last night's panel.

Thank you for being with us, Pat.

Thank you for staying with us, Weiwei.

And let's ask -- so what were you trying to get? Is there no Twitter in China? I mean, we have the impression that there's Twitter everywhere. That was Jack Dorsey, the head of Twitter, the founder of Twitter.

WEIWEI: There's no Twitter in China. There's no Facebook in China. There's no YouTube in China. Now (inaudible) we'll have no Google in China. Of course, we know there's no CNN in China.

AMANPOUR: I'm stunned. I mean, I know some of it. Pat, how -- how is this happening? And what can the future of social media be in China, do you think?

PAT MITCHELL, PALEY CENTER FOR MEDIA: Well, it was really stunning to hear Jack Dorsey say that he did not know Twitter was banned in China and it couldn't be used. And then you made the note, but look at the countries where this is the case, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, China, and what does this mean?

Well, it means that social media technologies like Twitter and sites like Facebook and social networking sites are creating a new tool for activism. And it's terrifying to governments who don't want people to have that freedom.

AMANPOUR: But how can it be terrifying to them if it's not accessible? Help me understand how, if it's not there, how can you actually get on it or use it?

WEIWEI: Well, today we have new technologies helping people to hop over the -- so-called the great firewall.

AMANPOUR: I see. Get around the restriction.

WEIWEI: Yes. But it's only very few people can do that. For example, the Chinese version of Twitter, now we have about 50,000 people, about writers, editors, journalists, who can get the information. And, also, they can get whatever we say in the West.

AMANPOUR: Is it having an effect on the Chinese government? Is your sort of blogging, your activism in the digital sphere, people -- even if it's only 50,000 on Twitter, is it having an effect on the government?

WEIWEI: It has a great effect on the government. And still young people see what we are being talking about on Twitter and the blogging. They would speak the words in to different kind of media. So that have great potential of millions of people read it.

AMANPOUR: So we're looking right now at your Twitter page and your Twitter domain. Pat, this argument now between Google and China over censorship, how is it going to resolve itself?

MITCHELL: Well, it seems that Google is probably going to pull out, given the choice of staying and continuing a censored operation. And it's just pointing up how dangerous these new technologies are perceived by government to have to keep people uninformed in order to stay in power.

And there's no question that these technologies are game-changers. Last night in the online Tweeting and texting and e-mail conversation that was going on around the world while we were talking in person, the subject and the question kept coming up, but can Twitter change governments? No, Twitter can't, but people can, using that technology.

AMANPOUR: And do you think, Weiwei, that that's the only way now? I mean, do you think people will use any other way to challenge the government? How do you see political change coming in China?

WEIWEI: I think that this is the first to get the correct information and to knowledge yourself and to equip -- equip yourself with a kind of sense of responsibility, anticipation. So that is very, very important motivation for any kind of change.

AMANPOUR: And you yourself, though, you've had this blog. Have the Chinese pushed back? I understand they shut it down.

WEIWEI: Yes, they shut down three of my blogs in seven minutes, so you can see how fearful about somebody speak out their mind. I got over, you know, about 12 million readerships there, and the...

AMANPOUR: Twelve million?

WEIWEI: Yes, just one second, nobody can read my articles. So that educate a whole young generation from '80s, '90s. They all ask, why? Why this man's name can never be tapped on the Chinese computer, and the whole sentence will disappear?

AMANPOUR: And just to be clear, you're able to be in China and to act in China and to walk around and do your art and do all that blogging? I mean, you're not sort of imprisoned or...

WEIWEI: No, I've never been imprisoned, but I have been told -- you know, my phone has been, you know, followed, and my banking account has been checked. You know, it's -- all kind of harassment is going on.


MITCHELL: And that's the dark side, isn't it, of the technology that they can do all that now? In the same way you can use digital technology for the activism, they can also use it for the snooping and the suppressing. And that's...


AMANPOUR: But is it because he's such a big name that he's not, you know, more seriously punished and cracked down, do you think?

MITCHELL: I think it might be that -- people kept asking you that last night, Weiwei. How you can go in and out of China, especially when you speak so strongly against the government?

WEIWEI: Yes, it's very hard to say. On the one hand, the prime minister would memorize my father's poetry in front of the great public, but on the other hand, the police were, you know, following me. So it's hard to say. You know, I was beaten almost for death, so, you know, this...

AMANPOUR: We have some pictures, actually, because when you were in Germany, you were rushed into emergency surgery, as we saw, and you had to have some medical attention there. And you Twittered, Tweeted these pictures around the world.

What happened during the Iranian post-election crisis? You've been quoted as saying you spent 24 hours on Twitter every day. What were you -- what were you doing?

WEIWEI: We are so excited to see how this new technology can really lets those young mind in Iran to tell the world what's in their mind. You know, many, many (inaudible) just like the best poetry. And, you know, they risk their life, and they -- how they're dealing with the police, how the government and troops were dealing with them.

So they all see it as it -- something we can facing in a way (ph), all encourage and discouraged by whatever happens in the other nations.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me -- let me ask you, Pat, because, I mean, here we stand at the pinnacle of technological progress and power in the West, in the United States. Jack Dorsey had said before your panel -- he'd been quoted as saying Twitter is so empowering because it fundamentally changes and will change the way people talk to their governments.

But what is it actually doing? Because it hasn't really brought change in Iran post the election. Is it more than just a force multiplier in sending out the messaged and the images and the words?

MITCHELL: You know, it's ultimately the question. And I found it interesting last night, Christiane, that Jack Dorsey himself said that in some ways Twitter is a very mundane thing. You know, people tweet out, "I'm going to have coffee." "I'm picking up my child at school." But in doing that all over the world, they are reminding us all that there is a humanity that connects us. And that is why it is sort of small and trivial.

But when you move it to the level in which we see a photograph of a young woman dying in the streets of Iran, when we hear an aid request from an earthquake victim in Haiti, or we see that it saved a life in Mumbai by literally getting someone directions to get out of a hotel, we realized, we're not -- we are dealing with a game-changer.

So whatever, you know, it can and cannot do -- and you're right, it hasn't instigated reform. That takes people. But people using the technology are starting the revolution.

AMANPOUR: So a final thought from you, Weiwei. Where do you see people power in whatever form going in China and when, using this technology?

WEIWEI: I think it's not predictable. And the new technology is the only way to helping China to going through this very difficult time. And this already showed a great improvement, and I believe one day it will happen.

AMANPOUR: Are you afraid for your life as you continue this?

WEIWEI: No, I'm not afraid. I think my life in -- through I grew up, I've always been threatened in different circumstance, so I think this was safer (ph) if I speak for somebody else, and they know what I'm doing.

AMANPOUR: Ai Weiwei, Pat Mitchell, thank you both so much for joining us.

And to take part in one of our new hash tag debates, this time with Ai Weiwei, you can do that afterwards about Twitter's influence on democracy. Log on to We'll be taking your questions and using the hash tag "AmanWei."

And next, our "Post-Script." China may be trying to ban them, but the FBI apparently feels if you can't beat them, join them. It's using social networking sites like Facebook. We'll tell you when we return.



AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script." As we've been discussing, authoritarian governments are doing everything they can to censor the Internet, to keep their grip on power. It's a different story in some democracies, such as here in the United States, where law enforcement agencies are embracing the openness of social networks by joining Facebook, Twitter and other sites so that undercover agents can communicate with suspects and collect evidence.

Not everyone is happy about that. Civil liberties groups say there's a danger that agencies like the FBI may go too far and threaten the privacy of law-abiding citizens as the Internet's reach continues to grow.

And that's it for now. We'll be back tomorrow with a look at the growing sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and whether it would have happened if women were in the Catholic power structure. Until then, check out our podcast on For all of us here, goodbye from New York.