‘They are ready to sacrifice everything’: Ai Weiwei pays tribute to Hong Kong protesters | Art and design


WWhen Ai Weiwei was growing up in China, it was customary for people from the mainland to look at Hong Kong people with their noses. “We thought they didn’t have a serious culture. We thought they were colonial subjects only interested in money making and martial arts movies. They weren’t political, ”recalls the 63-year-old exiled artist on WhatsApp in the back of a car parked in Lisbon.
This vision of childhood is turned upside down in Ai’s deeply moving documentary, Cockroach, about the Hong Kong people who took to the streets to protest against China’s excessive domination last year. They are the ones who became cultured, utopian and offered political resistance to the barbaric repression of the continent.

Much of the film’s power comes from its meticulous sequences of pitched street battles – including the headquarters of Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November 2019 and the blockade of the Cross-Harbor tunnel. Ai’s film focuses on protesters, mostly young, using every weapon at their disposal – pavement slabs, molotov cocktails, even laser pointers distracted by cops – to resist Chinese authorities. They are the ones we see in the film skillfully applying the “be water” fighting technique of Hong Kong’s most famous son, Bruce Lee, to protest in the streets. Time and time again we see them withdrawing from the barricades as the police advance with water cannons and tear gas, only to reappear in the streets.

Battles on… student demonstrators clash with riot police at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Cockroach. Photography: Ai Weiwei

For Ai, they are impressive because, while living in one of the most unaffordable cities in the world, they fought not for material improvement but for principles. “They are heroes because they fought for democracy and civil society without really hoping to achieve their goals. They are clear, well educated and above all sincere. They were not fighting for jobs or money, but for things that seemed abstract. It is a question of human dignity. I really think I am one of them.

Ai has long supported Hong Kong’s struggles for democracy and freedom. When the umbrella revolution started in 2015, he tweeted “I’m Hong Kong”. He said, “I was just expressing my solidarity but the Chinese authorities thought I was one of the leaders of the revolution and delayed the return of my passport.” This suspicion was understandable, as the artist had become an icon of the resistance. “My image was broadcast at night on military buildings,” he recalls. “But even before that, I got into trouble giving a lecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong which the authorities said was subversive. It was subversive but I was never a leader. The beauty of Hong Kong is that their revolution is leaderless. They are resilient because they depend on self-organization, not rule from above. ”

The protests last year were sparked by a now abandoned law that would undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy by allowing extradition to mainland China. Four and a half years after the failure of the Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong people demonstrated against Beijing’s betrayal of its “one country, two systems” deal with Britain, whereby the former colony could retain unique freedoms for 50 years. But the protests were more than that. “These people are unique in the world because they stand up to China. Most people don’t take action. They are too worried about their work. Many countries dare not stand up to China. But these people are ready to sacrifice everything for their beliefs.

Ai struggled to convince the authorities to speak up for her film. “Eventually we had two policemen who fought in the streets to talk about a film. They are honest. They are not proud of what they are doing. But as a job, what else can they do? One of these heavily disguised officers captures the surreal, performative aspect of street battles when he says, “Who wants to be Lex Luthor?” Everyone wants to be Superman. But that’s the script. We have to play a role. The film is called Cockroach because that, along with the molotov cocktails and the bricks, was one of the terms of abuse thrown over the barricades at the despised police.

“Five requests, not one less”… a scene from Cockroach.

“Five requests, not one less”… a scene from Cockroach. Photography: Ai Weiwei

For Ai, these police officers and the now aborted extradition law are part of that horrible word used a lot in his film, namely “mainlandization”. “The Chinese authorities have a lot of money. And even if they didn’t, they would spend it all to maintain stability and control using police and propaganda.

“They have no other way to do it, because they don’t negotiate. They have no tolerance. They don’t give up an inch. They just stop people who don’t agree. It is the most efficient. I know from my own experience, but they’ve been controlling like this for 70 years. In my father’s day a million intellectuals disappeared and nobody knew it. Terrible things are in the news today and no one cares. I don’t know which is worse.

Ai’s late father, Ai Qing, a poet, was exiled to Xinjiang during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where he cleaned the communal toilet for five years and, according to his son, lost his sight in one eye in due to poor diet. His poems were not published until after his “rehabilitation” in 1979.

Ai has no doubt that the fate of Hong Kong will be absorbed by mainland China, whatever the will of its people. “Maybe it will become like Xinjiang or maybe it will become like Shanghai. It will not become what the protesters hope.

Few of them doubt this analysis. Since the events depicted in Cockroach took place, many activists interviewed in Ai’s film – including Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam – have been jailed for their role in the protests. In June, China imposed a national security law. Since then, pro-democracy lawmakers have been disqualified from their elective office and academics have been kicked out of universities.

A haven of peace… Ai is building a new life with her 10 year old son in Cambridge.

A haven of peace… Ai is building a new life with her 10 year old son in Cambridge. Photograph: Filip Singer / EPA

Ai moved last September from Berlin to Cambridge so that his 10-year-old son Lao could get a better education and be spared the racism he says he lived in Germany. “I am happy to have left Berlin for a more friendly environment.” He admires Britain for its condemnation of Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong protesters and for providing refugees with safe haven. “I think this is a very important gesture. Maybe half a million people would qualify. In the long run it is definitely worth it as they are very good professionals, very well trained, who will appreciate what Britain would do for them.

So far, fingers crossed, Cambridge is working for Ai. “I like talking to people who give you time to explain yourself, and the British are patient about that. I need a little comfort. I have had enough harshness in my life.

This is an understatement. Raised in a difficult provincial exile, he became as an artist and activist a staunch critic of the authoritarian regime. As a result, he was imprisoned, refused to travel to China, and had his passport withdrawn. In 2015, he left his homeland without ever hoping to be allowed to return.

The making of Cockroach was, therefore, a delicate matter. He directed by remote control, sending a team of filmmakers and a journalist specializing in reporting on war zones to shoot in Hong Kong for six months. He later worked on the material in Britain. Can you ever go back to China? “I keep hope, but I have no illusions about my chances.” He would like to visit his mother, who is 88, although he talks to her every day.

Despite all the constraints imposed by exile and the pandemic, Ai worked hard during the lockdown. Cockroach is one of three films he completed this year. Vivos, published in January, tells the story of the 43 students who were attacked in Mexico in 2014 and who were never seen again. Coronation, his portrayal of Wuhan during the pandemic, was made public in September. Each of these films bears the mark of Ai’s consciousness. He says he didn’t become an artist properly until 2009, when he covered the facade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich with backpacks to spell in Chinese the following words: “Anything I want.” is that the world remembers that she had lived happily for seven years. years. These are the words a mother said to Ai when he investigated the disappearance of 5,335 schoolchildren in Sichuan after the region’s earthquake in 2008.

Why do you do such political works? “I only make films and art about things that fascinate me intellectually and emotionally, I like to understand better. To do this, you need to set up obstacles to overcome. Or get in trouble. It helps you learn.


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