Updated at 8:40 a.m. ET
Chinese authorities are razing one of the Beijing studios of dissident artist Ai Weiwei. He said that demolition crews showed up without advance warning, and have begun the process of tearing down the studio.
Ai has been a longtime critic of the government, and on Saturday, he began posting videos to his Instagram feed of the studio’s destruction. “Farewell,” Ai wrote. “They started to demolish my studio ‘Zuoyuo’ in Beijing with no precaution.”
“We didn’t receive any advance warning or announcement of the demolition,” Ai told NPR. “We were required to move by a certain date, which we have not yet reached. The demolition came as a surprise.”
“Works were damaged due to the unannounced attack on the studio. There was no caution taken. However, compared to the memories which have been lost, compared to a society which has never established trust in the social order, a trust in the rule of law, or a trust in any kind of unity in defending the rights of its people, what has been lost at my studio is insignificant, and I don’t even care. There are profoundly deeper and wider ruins in this deteriorating society where the human condition has never been respected.”
The son of famed Chinese poet Ai Qing, Ai is widely admired in China, and designed the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
It was that year though, in the wake of a massive earthquake in China’s Sichuan province, that Ai emerged as an even more vocal activist and dissident. Collapsed buildings in Sichuan had buried thousands of children, and Ai began to speak as an advocate for them and their families, creating works of art in their honor. He has since criticized the Chinese government on a range of issues, from human rights to corruption.
In Beijing, the AFP reports that authorities have slated the neighborhood surrounding Ai’s studio for redevelopment. According to the AP, Beijing has destroyed “large swaths of the suburbs over the past year in a building safety campaign.”
Ai says the destruction of his studio is a result of the gentrification of Beijing, and in an interview, highlighted the needs of migrant workers, who he says are being forced out of the city:
“Demolishing existing buildings for new development, or for whatever reason, happens in every city. However, since last year, a policy was enacted to clear out migrant workers from Beijing. It is gentrification, but this is also a society which exploits the rights of its migrant workers. They have never had any security in their lives in terms of property or legal support. They are dependent on the clear laws which should protect their basic human rights. They live in a society where they have no opportunity to freely discuss in the media any matter related to these issues. This is not simply the demolition of a studio, but rather the demolition of human rights.
“Right now, there is the misconception that it’s simply the demolition of one artist’s studio, which is not true. They have been demolishing migrant worker’s homes, often in the middle of the night. They kick them out, destroy their personal belongings, and make them homeless or have them arrested for resisting eviction. This has been going on and on.
“In China, there is no independent judicial system and no independent media so these people do not have a voice. I consider myself lucky. I can still have my voice heard. My image can still appear on the internet and I can still make public my struggle. However, my argument is not about myself or my studio. It’s a nice studio and I have used it for the last twelve years to produce large artworks. But beyond that, this situation reflects the reality that even those with certain privilege are also seen as irrelevant. They will not consider granting even a few days more to move out.”
Artnet has reported that China is abruptly evicting galleries in Caochangdi, a Beijing arts district that Ai developed, “to make way for immediate demolition.”
“Free speech and free expression have simply never existed in China or in its artist communities,” Ai told NPR. “Those who do not belong to the establishment, including artists, are always the first to be discriminated against and sacrificed. Often, the authorities face no consequences in doing so.”
“Cultural structures do not really exist in a communist society. Art is seen as either party propaganda or as Western spiritual pollution,” Ai added. “The demolition of an artist’s studio or the eviction of artists as a silencing strategy doesn’t affect that society at all. It will remain the same society under one authority, one voice, and one ideology. It used to be called communism, but now it is state capitalism — a capitalism where the communists dominate both profit and power.”
Artists’ neighborhoods in Beijing have long been targeted for destruction because they are often hubs of political dissent and occupy land that can be sold for a profit by real estate developers. Artists living on that land can often face quick eviction.
In 2011 for an independent documentary, Ai spoke about the destruction of artists’ neighborhoods and freedom of expression in China, saying, “If you are being treated unfairly, you have to let your voice out, and let other people know it. You cannot just be silent. ”
“I do have a responsibility because my father’s generation failed. They never really successfully made their voice, and I don’t want that to happen to the later generations. I am here now, and I can do something now about it, and I will.
“I think China will eventually become a democratic society, and have much freedom for the young people who want to learn more information. Who can build up their knowledge, to meet the competition, and have a better life. Nobody can stop it. It’s just a matter of time.”
Police visited Ai’s Beijing studio during the filming of that interview, and shortly afterwards, the government detained Ai for more than two months on charges of tax evasion. He has said the accusations were politically motivated. He subsequently paid a $2.4 million fine, and the government confiscated his passport, preventing him from travel for several years.
At the time, Ai said he had been beaten by police, put under house arrest, and the government installed cameras outside of his home, to monitor his movements.
On China’s current crackdown on freedom of expression and civil society, Ai told NPR, “Any authority that cracks down on artists, journalists, intellectuals, and lawyers has completely lost its legitimacy to rule. It is evidence of vulnerability and fragility in facing the challenges of today and the future, and an inability to do so with a peaceful mind or a rational manner.”
In 2015, Chinese authorities returned Ai’s passport, and he moved to Berlin shortly afterwards, living in self-imposed exile. Ai has since turned his attention to the plight of global refugees, which is the topic of his latest documentary, Human Flow.