All Eyes on Ai Weiwei: Life Under Surveillance … and on Twitter … After His Arrest

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?’ ”

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