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Ai Weiwei (57) receives us in his studio located in the spacious basement of an old brewery in the Mitte district of Berlin.  There are bare brick walls, some rooms are dimly lit while sunlight pours in through big windows in the others. In one room 6.000 wooden stools from a huge installation in the Gropius Bau are neatly stacked. He's made himself comfortable on a traditional Chinese daybed but for the interview he sits on a long wooden table. He appears relaxed but during the interview he becomes very agitated.

DIE ZEIT: Does Germany feel different compared to the last time you were here?

Ai Weiwei: Berlin is like a bird which has grown more and more feathers: young people from all corners of the earth are pouring in, small restaurants are opening up. I like cities which have become a bit run-down and there is a feeling of space and danger. It's very different to Beijing. Beijing is very one-sided politically and people's lives are confined to their family. There is no public life. Meanwhile, material living standards have risen but this freedom is restricted to consumption and entertainment venues. This isn't a well-balanced and healthy way of life.

DIE ZEIT: You said that at the top you have an emperor and below a faceless mass.

Ai: Chinese society is very rigid, all decisions come from the top. The lower classes are like moss and although it grows, it doesn't have any shape. 

DIE ZEIT: Is that still your impression even when you meet individuals?

Ai: If a society doesn't recognise the feelings of individuals, then individuals cease to exist. Their characteristics fail to emerge. If a thousand people came up to me on the street in Beijing, I'd be able to say exactly who they were, what they were thinking, where they were going and who their parents were. A large number of our generation have lost their individual characteristics. The striking feature of an authoritarian society is that it denies any kind of humanity. A society's ideals, enthusiasm, power of imagination just don't exist. Such a society has no future.  

DIE ZEIT: Where will the change come from?

Ai: From many different sides. First of all, from the experience of freedom. China has reached a certain level of well-being and is actively exchanging ideas with the rest of the world. Every year hundreds of thousands of Chinese students flock to foreign countries. They have nothing more to do with the past. They will, however, be subject to the weight of society and history which will set them thinking.

DIE ZEIT: Will the change come from the top or from below?

Ai: These are categories which come from the Cold War era: either the people or the government can play the decisive role.  I try to look at it from an ecological or biochemical point of view. It's like cells mutating. Very small individual changes can lead to social change. This has nothing to do with the top or below. It's a state of shared understanding.

DIE ZEIT: All the Chinese people who are being arrested are also being warned by the security agencies. They aren't allowed to take part in any political activities.

Ai: This warning is stupid. By the time you receive this warning you are already right in the middle of the politics. The warning itself is political.

DIE ZEIT: The security agencies say you should only do what is good for you as an individual. However, do you do things that help others? Do you follow a policy?

Ai: I think only doing what is good for you personally is a very good warning. Everything I do is to help me, my family or my children. It's not wrong to do what is good for you personally. Ultimately, we no longer live in the era of the Father of the Nation, Sun Yatsen, who once announced: the entire world is becoming a community. Even the Communist Party says that this goes against human nature. I can understand those who think of themselves first. I'm not convinced by all the others.

DIE ZEIT: The police are warning you to think about your own security.

Ai: Perhaps they really are worrying about your security.

DIE ZEIT: The police know that you'll be giving interviews while you're abroad. Did they warn you before you left?

Ai: I'm already past the point where someone would deliver personal warnings to me. I know exactly where the danger lies and what it could mean for me. It's as if you were to say to some school kids: if you don't wash your hands, you'll get sick. The security agencies don't care if I wash my hands or not.

DIE ZEIT: When you're speaking does it not cross your mind: perhaps it'd better not say this or that because it could be dangerous?

Ai: Anyone who has even just a shred of intelligence would think about this. However, this doesn't determine what I do or don't say. It's as if there were a high-voltage cable there and someone warns you not to touch it. Do you want to touch it? There are those who'd say they're not scared of anything and would touch it. Is that not a real shame? If you said to me you wanted to set yourself on fire, I'd admire your courage and religious convictions (editor's note: Ai is referring to the Tibetan people who set themselves on fire in protest at the Chinese government's policies.) However, I'd never set myself on fire nor touch a high-voltage cable. My life is about more than just 'resistance'. I think we need to be honest but if people aren't like that, I don't want to talk to them and this I find very suspicious.

DIE ZEIT: You say you're very optimistic about China's future.

Ai: I'm always very optimistic. Admittedly, I've experienced a lot bad things in my life but even that has become a part of my optimism. The fact that they did all these things to me shows that they've become weak. And as a result of this they've made me the person I am today. My actions left them with no other choice.