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Ai Weiwei helped design Beijing’s Olympic stadium. But he regrets how it’s being used today

Jacqui Palumbo and Christiane Amanpour, CNN | Henry Hullah, CNN

As the Beijing Winter Olympics gets underway, artist Ai Weiwei is once again criticizing China’s ruling Communist Party — and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which he said is “ignoring” the safety of the country’s athletes by prioritizing business and “standing next to the authoritarians.”

The world-renowned Chinese dissident and rights activist made the comments to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview from Portugal, where he has been living in self-exile since 2021. Fearing for his safety were he to return to China, where he was once detained for 81 days for “inciting the subversion of state power,” Ai has resided around Europe for almost seven years.

Years prior to his departure from his home country, Ai famously consulted on the design of the venue hosting Friday night’s opening ceremony: The Beijing National Stadium, or “Bird’s Nest.”

The open-roofed structure, wrapped in interwoven steel structs, functioned as one of the main venues for the Summer Olympics in 2008. A collaboration with Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, the stadium took five years to build and was designed to represent a new, modern China.

But the artist distanced himself from the project and criticized China’s hosting of the Olympics ahead of the opening ceremony, believing it to be a propaganda tool at odds with what he felt were the oppressive realities of life in the country.

“Unfortunately, as an architect, you cannot control how the building is being used,” Ai told Amanpour in the interview, which airs Friday. “For me it’s a big disappointment, not only in how it’s being used but also in the directions China (has taken) in past decades.”

In his recently published book “1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows,” Ai wrote about the stadium’s design, which was inspired by the art of Chinese ceramics. It “aimed to convey the message that freedom was possible,” he wrote, and “encapsulated something essential about democracy, transparency and equity.”

When asked if he really believed, back then, that China would become democratic, free and transparent, Ai responded, “Well, by that time, of course I believed so. But at this moment, I doubt (it),” adding that that the country has, in many ways, gone “backwards.”

In the lead up to this year’s Winter games, which Ai has also been openly critical of, China has been subjected to increased international scrutiny, from its alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang to its stringent Covid-19 policies to the global concern for the well-being of Chinese tennis player and three-time Olympian, Peng Shuai. Peng disappeared from public view for over two weeks after she accused a former top Communist Party official of sexual assault.

Beijing denies allegations of human rights abuses and has dismissed fears for Peng’s safety as “malicious speculation.” The IOC, meanwhile, did not respond directly to Ai’s accusations, but said in a statement to CNN that it “recognizes and upholds human rights,” which are “enshrined” in both the Olympic Charter and the organization’s code of ethics. “Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games,” read the statement, “the IOC must remain neutral on global political issues.”

But Ai argued that the IOC has “never” been neutral. “They’re always standing next to the authoritarians or business,” he told Amanpour. “Since the 2008 Olympics, they have been working with the government’s propaganda, and this time they are (doing so) even more. They are ignoring the top (Chinese) athletes’ safety and well-being.”

While the dissident artist has not called for athletes to boycott the games, he appealed to their “sense of justice and fairness,” adding: “The Games is about fairness, the competition is about fairness. And so, athletes representing human spirit (should) of course defend those very important issues, such as human rights and freedom of speech.

A ‘citizen of nowhere’

Ai said he wrote “1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows,” his first memoir, to show young people what he called the “absurd” reality of living in China.

“I have to write (for) my son’s generation to understand what really happened to his father and his grandfather,” he told Amanpour. Ai’s father, a poet who was also accused of subverting state power, spent time in jail and was sent to a labor camp in Xinjiang when Ai was a child. Ai later joined him in the far northwestern region where, today, China has been accused of genocide by the United States against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.

Ai said he ultimately left China in 2015 because he lacked a “sense of safety” as an artist. His conceptual works, many of which were considered controversial in China, often contend with the country’s past and present using found objects. He has created sculptures from the remains of demolished Ming and Qing dynasty houses, as well as from steel rods salvaged from schools that collapsed during the deadly 2008 Sichuan earthquake. One of his most famous works, a photo triptych from 1995, shows him smashing a Han dynasty urn.

“China is totally under the control of one party, and the party can do anything,” he said of his reasons for living in self-exile. “It can make you disappear. It can make you (go on) trial without lawyers. And also, they can put you (for) a long time behind bars. Nobody can (argue with authorities) — that’s the reality. So, if I want to have a sense of safety, a normal life, I have to escape.”

Ai has been critical of other countries too, particularly when it comes to the West’s treatment of refugees.

“I’m a citizen of the world, if I can call it that. Actually, I’m a citizen of nowhere,” he told Amanpour. “So, wherever I see injustice, I always think that’s connected. Whatever happens in Afghanistan, in Syria, is connected to China (and) also connected to the United States. We have to understand humanity as one, human rights as one. We have to defend everybody who has been mistreated, and only by doing that, can we build a better future.”

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