Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei has said his desire to be reunited with his 90-year-old mother could see him return to China, but that she has asked him not to give up his British exile.
The sculptor and activist, who splits his time between Cambridge and Portugal, spent 81 days in detention in Beijing in 2011 and fled his home country four years later after getting his passport back.
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 each individual has to make up their own mind based on their circumstances,” he said. “My situation is that I have a mother who is 90 years old and she calls me all the time on the phone. She thinks I’m her little boy…
“Always the last sentence she said, ‘Don’t come back.’ So it’s very difficult to answer such a question.I feel completely reasonable to go back because my mom is my only parent there. [But] if anything should stop me from going back it’s my mom. Of course, there is a strong potential that I may never return home or end up somewhere that is 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 labor camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang during a purge when Ai Weiwei was one year old. The family was then exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang, returning to Beijing only in 1976 after Mao’s death.
The artist’s first major clash with the Chinese Communist Party came when he orchestrated the collection 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 tax evasion charges in April 2011 at the Beijing airport where he was about to board a flight to Hong Kong led to an outpouring of international condemnation. His mother, Gao Ying, was prominent in demanding her son’s release, at one point describing Chinese officials as “scary, crooked, evil” despite the risk to her own freedom.
Ai, speaking to Lord Patten at Asia House in central London, where he was one of five recipients of a Praemium Imperiale award, which includes £100,000 for each winner, said he was not clear in his mind about his fight for freedom was “worth it.”
He said: “I remember a person from the security agency who interrogated me, before I was released, he said: ‘You always ask for freedom. For that freedom you can end up in prison and spend years just because you ask for it.’ He is very sincere, very honest and he has no answer. Saying just think about it, if it’s worth it. I can’t say it’s worth it.”
Ai is curating an exhibition of art by prisoners in UK prisons, which opens at the Southbank Center on 27 October. Ai said the works to be shown from people who “served time”, including at HMP Wormwood Scrubs, were “truly impressive”. He added: “I have seen many masterpieces.”