As the one-year anniversary of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei’s release from jail draws near, the whole world seems to be watching his every move. The whole world, that is, except for the Chinese people.
Ai is cut off from most of the population of his own country after the government shut down his blog and stopped him from using Chinese social media. When he was released from jail on June 22 of last year, after 81 days of detention, Ai found that the government had installed surveillance cameras all around his Beijing home and studio. He counted 15 within a 100-meter area. In response, he set up four of of his own cameras inside his home earlier this spring and began streaming a 24-hour live webfeed, called “Weiwei Cam.” The regime quickly shut that site down, too.
But the Chinese authorities have not completely cut off Ai’s access to the world outside of China. More than 147,000 people follow him on Twitter, one of the many Western sites blocked in China, and a steady stream of foreign journalists have been making their way to his Beijing compound for interviews. Last week The New York Times published a harrowing account of the day in April, 2011, when police pulled a hood over Ai’s head and drove him to an undisclosed detention center. And this week Slate published an article, “Someone’s Always Watching Me,” along with videos (above and below) of an interview with Ai conducted by Slate Group Editor-in-Chief Jacob Weisberg on May 14. “I feel that what makes them most frightened,” Ai told Weisberg, referring to the Chinese government, “is my international profile, my interviews with Western media.”
Ai is restricted to Beijing until June 22. Whenever he leaves his house he must tell the police where he is going and who he will meet. “I basically obey their orders,” he told Evan Osnos of The New Yorker in January, “because it doesn’t mean anything. I also want to tell them I’m not afraid. I’m not secretive.” Every week he has to meet with the Public Security Bureau for a chat. Like the foreign journalists, the Chinese police are eager to learn what Ai plans to do when restrictions on his movement are lifted later this month. “They asked me what I would do next when I met them last weekend,” Ai told a reporter for The Telegraph this week. “They tried to make it very casual. After a chat, they said, ‘What comes next?’ I said: ‘It is an interesting question. What does this nation do next?’”