Why Did Chinese Authorities Raze Artist's Studio?

Ai Weiwei is one of China's best known artists and also one the most outspoken critics of the government. Earlier this week, a million-dollar studio he had recently built to attract prominent artists to Shanghai was demolished by authorities. They had told Ai the building did not meet standards. He thinks he was targeted for supporting democratic causes.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

This next story speaks to the complexities of living in China right now. It involves a prominent Chinese artist and architect. His work includes a role in the famous Bird's Nest Stadium used in the 2008 Olympics. More recently, he built a studio that was meant to be a cultural magnet for Shanghai. He did that with the government's encouragement. And when it was all but done, the government tore it down this week.

NPR's Rob Gifford is following the strange story of the artist Ai Weiwei.

Hi, Rob.

ROB GIFFORD: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What was this studio, exactly?

GIFFORD: Well, as you say, he was encouraged to build it. It was on the outskirts of Shanghai, and it was supposed to be a kind of artist village, the center of an artist village. He's been part of those of kind of areas in Beijing, and I think Shanghai was looking to him for spicing up the artistic world here. In Shanghai, they always feel they're lagging behind Beijing a little bit.

But then, yes, he fell foul of the authorities, and they came at very short notice on Tuesday and knocked the whole thing down.

INSKEEP: So we're not talking about a room when we say a studio. We're talking about a complex. Why would the government demolish it?

GIFFORD: Well, he says himself that it's a retaliation for his support of democrats and dissidents and political causes that the Communist Party doesn't like. Why, then, might they have asked him to build it in the first place? Well, because he walks a very fine line, as you suggested. He helped to design the Bird's Nest Stadium that we all saw at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

And so he walks this fine line between knowing the authorities and having worked with them, and actually being a real thorn in their side. And it seems that things have tightened up here, and they decided that they didn't want him anymore to be the center of this artist community.

INSKEEP: So there was a brief moment, perhaps, of things being a little more open. Now things would seem to be a little bit more closed. But why wouldn't they just arrest him if they don't like what he's doing politically?

GIFFORD: Well, that's a good question. A lot of the focus, as you know, has been on Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who's serving an 11-year jail sentence for being politically provocative.

I think there's a few reasons that they haven't touched Ai Weiwei. One of them is that his father was a very famous poet in the Communist era and apparently one of Chairman Mao's favorite poets. And I think those connections have probably protected Ai Weiwei over the years.

A: not much political freedom here, plenty of economic freedom, a lot of artistic freedom - but a very fine line and only a very small space for political activists to work in.

And I think he's going to have to watch his step very carefully, indeed. Or he could end up in the same condition as Liu Xiaobo, being detained and being arrested.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Gifford, helping to explain those complexities.

Rob, thanks very much.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Steve.

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