China

Ai Weiwei says mother, 90, warns him against China return


The Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has said his desire to be reunited with his 90-year-old mother could lead him to return to China, but that she has implored him not to give up his British exile.

The sculptor and activist, who divides his time between Cambridge and Portugal, spent 81 days in custody in Beijing in 2011 and fled his home country four years later on the return of his passport.

Asked by Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong, at an event in London whether people who had left Hong Kong after the recent political crackdown should return, Ai, 65, explained his own daily dilemma.

“I can’t answer for others and I think every individual has to make up their minds according to their circumstances,” he said. “My situation is I have a mum who is 90 years old and she calls me all the time on the phone. She thinks I am her little boy …

“Always the last sentence she would say: ‘Do not come back.’ So, it’s very hard to answer a question like that. I feel perfectly reasonable to go back because my mum is my only parent there. [But] if anything should stop me from going back it is my mum. Of course, there is strong potential that I can never come home or end up somewhere not very desirable.”

Ai’s father was the poet Ai Qing, a member of the Chinese Communist party and an intimate of Mao Zedong. Ai Qing was sent to a labour camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang, during a purge when Ai Weiwei was one year old. The family was subsequently exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang, and only returned to Beijing in 1976 after Mao’s death.

The artist’s first major clash with the Chinese Communist party came when he orchestrated the gathering and publication of the names of 4,851 children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Their deaths were said to be a direct consequence of corruption and the unsafe construction of school buildings.

Ai’s arrest on charges of tax evasion in April 2011 at Beijing airport where he was due to get on a flight to Hong Kong led to an outpouring of international condemnation. His mother, Gao Ying, was a prominent in demanding her son’s release, at one point describing Chinese officials as “creepy, crooked, evil” despite the risk to her own liberty.

Ai, who was speaking to Lord Patten at Asia House in central London where he was one of the five recipients of a Praemium Imperiale award, which includes £100,000 to each winner, said he was not clear in his mind whether his struggles for freedom were “worth it”.

He said: “I remember a security bureau person who interrogated me, before I got released, he said: ‘You are always asking for freedom. For that freedom, you might end of up in jail spending years just because you are asking for that.’ He is very sincere, very honest and he has no answer. Just says think about it, if it is worth it. I cannot say it is worth it.”

Ai is curating an exhibition of art by prisoners in UK jails, which will open at the Southbank Centre on 27 October. Ai said the works that would be on show from people “serving time”, including in HMP Wormwood Scrubs, were “truly impressive”. He added: “I have seen many masterworks.”



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