Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei (艾未未) has a metaphor for the travel ban that will prevent him attending the growing number of exhibitions of his work being held around the world as his renown increases.
“I can swim, but not far,” Ai said of the ban on leaving China imposed last week despite the expiry of a yearlong bail term. “I hope I can travel. This is an important part of freedom. This is also a human right.”
A year after he was freed from unofficial detention, the outspoken 55-year-old, who has become a thorn in the side of the Chinese government, clearly chafes at the continuing restrictions on his freedom.
In an interview at his Beijing studio Ai, who spent 81 days in custody last year, described his frustration at the ongoing case against him.
“I have a lot of art activities, design and construction in the next one or two years, which will be overseas because they are not permitted domestically. Limiting me from leaving China will influence these events,” he said.
Ai was detained last year as police rounded up activists amid online calls for Arab Spring-style protests in China. On his release on June 22 last year, authorities accused him of tax evasion and barred him from leaving Beijing for a year — a restriction that has prevented him from attending a number of his exhibitions.
Ai has just missed an opening at London’s Serpentine Gallery for a pavilion with a floating platform roof and an interior clad in cork, which he co-designed by communicating on Skype.
He had hoped to attend an October show at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington and take up an invitation to teach in Berlin.
However, on Thursday last week police told him that unresolved cases involving accusations of spreading pornography, practicing bigamy and conducting illegal foreign-exchange transactions supported the overseas travel ban.
“These three things are just an excuse not to give me the right to go outside China,” he said.
The pornography charges stem from what he called a joke after he challenged two groups of visitors to take nude photos with him, which were posted online.
He is married, but had a relationship with another woman — cited by authorities as bigamy — with whom he had a child, and officials have threatened they could detain him again.
“They are used to doing things this way,” said Ai, who is technically allowed to travel within China outside of Beijing, but whose passport is being held by authorities.
He described the move as revenge against him, but said it would also hurt China, which is seeking to build soft power through spreading culture abroad.
“China’s policy has always emphasized soft power. This will stop China’s cultural exchanges and projects,” he said.
Ai said his desire to travel overseas did not necessarily mean he would choose a life in exile, like many other Chinese dissidents.
He is now challenging the tax evasion charges and a multimillion-dollar penalty brought against Beijing Fake Cultural Development, a company he set up, but which is registered in his wife’s name.
A court hearing last week lasted more than nine hours and a ruling is expected by early August.
Ai compared the court fight to how Chinese authorities reportedly used to charge the families of executed criminals for the bullets.
“It doesn’t matter how wrong they are, they put all the cost on you — cost of money, cost of energy, passion and your will. It’s wasted because you cannot deal with this big machine,” he said.