Artist Ai Weiwei speaks on conditions of imprisonment: "mental torture"

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei tells Keith Bradsher of the New York Times that he was confined to "a tiny room throughout his nearly three-month detention last spring and watched 24 hours a day by shifts of two uniformed military police sergeants who never left his side."

Ai Weiwei's police watchers hovered sometimes as close as four inches away, even while he slept, bathed, or used the bathroom.

“It is designed as a kind of mental torture, and it works well,” he said.


  1. Mr. Weiwei seems like a decent sort of person. It seems pitiful that China’s government is so authoritarian, these days. It wasn’t always like this, and it doesn’t have to be this way today.

    Maybe I’m just stupid, but I don’t understand why people in power feel like they must always be engaged in some kind of posturing or fighting. “Politics” does not have to mean antagonistic behavior. Wasn’t it China, in fact, that gave the world Confucius and Lao Tsu? Both of them argued for a more relaxed government, and if you know your Chinese history, then you know both of them were right, when the emperors would listen to them and prove them right.

    Ai Weiwei is just a man with an opinion, same as any of us. By punishing him for his views, the government is saying that no one is allowed to have an unsanctioned opinion. No one is allowed to perceive reality on their own terms. No one is allowed to be alive outside of brutally-defined parameters. Which, fundamentally, means no one is allowed to truly be alive.

    1. China’s history provides more of a clue. There’s been a pattern of western influence and interference in China’s history. The introduction of opium to open up Chinese markets is the earliest event I can think of, but there was also the foreign occupation of Hong Kong by numerous powers and armed conflict with Japan right before World War II.

      I don’t know the details of Chinese history, but I think they feel a sense of interference by other nations, and a feeling of taking control over their own future and I think they see any kind of point of view that doesn’t match the government as a threat to that effort. Like I said, I’m not familiar with Chinese culture or history, but that’s the sense I get.

    2. I think, and it’s my rather uninformed opinion here, that authoritarianism is a political addiction. In an authoritarian government, you and your close-knit group of cronies control everything and everyone. And even when you realize that it’s more profitable to give people more leeway, you become intensely scared that you might loose control and power, and so you become this weird, skewed and refracted spectre of a government which on the one hand promotes technology and properity, and on the other treats an artist whose opinion you do not like with mental torture reminiscent of 100 years ago.

    3. The Chinese govenment didn’t offer the world Laotzu or Confucius, or even Kungpao chicken. Maybe that helps a bit.

  2. Isn’t it also rather torturous to be the guard who has to stand four inches away from some poor imprisoned artist while he’s taking a dump or soaping up his balls?  Who takes that kind of job anyway?

    1. Agreed.

      I’d be making sure I was becoming extra gross just for them. Extra cabbage and beans for my meals, open-mouthed coughing and sneezing, lack of personal hygiene, etc.

      1. The soldiers are people inside a military shell. They are not allowed to react or to express themselves to their superior.  So you’d be punishing the pawn for something a higher ranking official is responsible for.  The only way to get to the heart of matters IS his dissidence, his voice.  That’s all poor Weiwei has.

    2. If you know you can leave at the end of your shift, I’m sure it’s bearable.

      Considering he knows exactly what he faces, this man is incredibly brave for breaking the gagging order.

    3. And there is the irony — the jailor is never free. The oppressor never realizes how deluded and self-limiting they are when they try to control. 

  3. Isn’t there an American named Bradley who’s being held in virtually identical circumstances, only for far, far longer?

    1. They actually moved Bradley from Quantico to a more “mainstream” prison – so now he has luxuries such as windows, a mattress, clothing, and personal belongings. He can even speak to other people. He’s living the life!

  4. There is a TED presenter that makes the claim that China have a different view on the concept of “nation” then at least the western world. Something about the government being the ancestral head of the family or something like that.

    1. China HAD a different concept of nation, indeed, from the 19th century nation-state concept. But what you saying about, the concepts of “realm”, cultural influence and order also exist in other geographies. The governement of today’s China is not exempt by the TED presenter.

  5. I think it was his performance piece where he broke ceramic vessels that got him into trouble….

  6. Condemning the Chinese is a great exercise and all but the 100% takeaway from this post is that China and the U.S. use the exact same mental torture techniques–literally–to punish those who effectively challenge their power.  Bradley Manning only got moved to Quantico after his torture became the subject of international outrage and condemnation. I don’t expect the mainstream media to broadcast the similarities between Manning’s treatment and that of Al Weiwei but I certainly encourage everyone who speaks truth to power on the Web or elsewhere to help Americans to evaluate their government with fresh eyes.

    Sadly, and to my eternal shame as an American, the United States has zero moral authority to condemn anyone for torture, mental or otherwise.

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