>> An artist and a voice for freedom, this week on "Firing Line."
>> I think every art, if it's relevant, is political.
>> The son of a poet persecuted during Mao's Cultural Revolution, artist Ai Weiwei went from helping to create the iconic Bird's Nest Stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics to becoming a captive of the Chinese government.
>> The prominent artist, Ai Weiwei, was taken into custody just this past Sunday.
>> The conditions you were held under, can you say anything about that?
>> No, I cannot say.
>> He's taken on tyranny in Beijing and beyond with his art and his activism, identifying each of the thousands of children who perished in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, then representing them in his art, smashing symbols of Chinese history, and creating strong messages about what he observes in the world.
Did you see it later?
>> No, no, I -- I was in detention.
>> What does Ai Weiwei say now?
>> "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... And by... Corporate funding is provided by... >> Ai Weiwei, welcome to "Firing Line."
>> Thank you.
>> Your newly published memoir is entitled "1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows."
You chronicle the history, not just of your struggles with the Chinese government but also your father's.
And you both suffered in exile, in imprisonment.
You write... At what point in your journey did you learn this truth?
>> Well, not till very late of my age.
I -- I start working on Internet.
I realize there's such huge obstacles in front of me.
But as long as I can keep expressing myself, I'm in good shape, because I can always extend my emotions and my opinions towards other people who never have a chance to speak out their mind.
So -- But, gradually, the fight becomes very difficult.
I was arrested.
I was threatened to be put in jail for a long, long time.
So only by that time I realized I have to write a book about the whole journey.
>> Well, in your book, you detail the history of your father, who was an internationally renowned poet, Ai Qing, and his tumultuous journey with the Chinese Communist Party, accused of being a rightist.
Your father was banished to Xinjiang province, which is also known as Little Siberia, and you joined him, where you lived for many years with him in a dugout as the Cultural Revolution forced him to undergo reform through labor.
Today, we meet in the Art Students League of New York, where you studied decades later, in the 1980s and the 1990s.
What does New York City represent to you, artistically?
It's very hard to describe New York City with one words, but -- but it was crazy.
It's very physical, and it's beyond the imagination.
There's so much energy and so much desperation in one Manhattan, and I, after so many years I'd come here, I still feel the same.
The city never change.
>> You were in New York in 1989 when the protests in Tiananmen Square broke out.
And you write in your book that you watched every moment of them on television.
How did the Tiananmen Square protests influence your decision to go home?
>> When I left China in 1981, I made decision -- "I will never go back."
I don't even look back.
But until 1989, many students, and also student leaders, which I know -- know them -- and they organized a peaceful demonstration, till one day, June 4th, being crushed by the military.
So somehow it draws me attention back to China, and I just want to be with my father before he passed away, to -- Yeah, just to be there.
>> You write... How has the Chinese government succeeded in erasing that memory?
>> Chinese government very sophisticated.
They succeed in every way for propaganda.
They believe if they keep presenting the untruthful conclusion, the history will also write that way.
And all the young generation, they have no other way to even to raise the question or challenge this conclusion from the government.
So basically, the whole generation or generations of a Chinese majority will be on the side of the government, which is a pity.
>> The Internet emerged when you returned to China.
So how do you see the Internet and the power of the Internet in 2021?
>> Um... At the very beginning, I do feel Internet would liberate China, because that's the first possibility for individuals like me can speak out.
But very soon, Chinese government learned faster than anybody.
They know how to control the Internet.
They hired probably millions of Internet police, just watch every sentence.
So every move, every act on the Internet would be clearly recorded and calculated.
So it becomes so sophisticated for censoring and monitoring every individual.
And it's beyond imagination.
>> You're describing a surveillance state.
>> Surveillance state to its -- the highest extreme.
It's like art, and it works so well for authoritarian state.
>> After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the Chinese government was not transparent about the deaths, particularly the deaths of students.
You went on a mission to identify every single child who died in that earthquake, and you were able to assemble, with your volunteers, the names of 5,196 students.
You say you went from being an artist to being a social activist.
How do you reflect back, Ai Weiwei, on that moment when your art and your activism merged?
>> As I was educated, we always separated art from politics.
But by 2008, after I experienced this very sad story, I questioned myself as the artist, as an individual -- "What should I do?"
And, of course, I can write articles.
I did write over 50 articles related to the earthquake.
But that seems not enough.
I have to find new vocabulary.
And that takes me to the earthquake location and to be there, to experience it.
>> The Munich exhibition that followed featured thousands of backpacks that formed the single sentence of one of the victims from her grieving mother.
>> So, what I have seen is, on those ruins, a lot of students' backpack.
And so I pick out some.
I don't know what to do with it.
It's so dirty, and it's so hard even to look at it.
But by 2009, I had a chance to show in Haus der Kunst Munich.
That's a building Hitler built for his art.
So I thought, "I'm going to change the facade of this kind of classical-looking.
So I design's the 9,000 backpack and constructed as one sentence of this earthquake victim's mom.
She said, "I only want my daughter to be remembered.
She happily lived in this world for seven years."
so I promised her I would do something to memorialize Yong Showan, who is the victim, and I did it.
>> You say you're an eternal optimist, but suffering is at the heart of much of your art.
Is suffering necessary for you to create art?
>> For me, suffering is necessary.
Without suffering, I would not be here.
Suffering teach me so many things.
Because suffering is an extreme condition human society can put on an individual.
And you have to understand why and how that functions.
>> You've also described yourself as a provocateur, a contrarian.
In 2009, when you were detained and beaten, instead of retreating, you pressed for answers.
You documented the experiences, including an image that you snapped when they detained you.
It went viral, and you ended up in prison for 81 days, supposedly for tax evasion.
How, in that time that you were detained, did you retain a sense of individualism?
>> I think, during that detention, you clearly understand why a state would kidnap one individual.
You see they are really taking you seriously.
So that make me be more clear how authoritarians are afraid of art, afraid of different attitude, different opinion.
And they just cannot coexist with that.
>> What do you think they're afraid of?
>> My art shakes the foundation of their legitimacy, and that probably is the obstacle they can never overcome.
It's not possible for them to face my challenge.
>> You received your passport back in 2015, and you left China, perhaps permanently.
>> I wouldn't say permanently.
>> That's what I want to know.
>> My life would be too short for any permanently.
But I have a chance to leave and ask them -- They said, "You have freedom now.
You can leave to anywhere you'd like to."
>> When was the last time you were in China?
>> That's five, six years ago.
>> So is it only time that has kept you away or...?
And, also, the situation in China become more extreme, in terms of censorship, in terms of their tolerance to dissidents.
And many, many dissident has been put in jail.
Almost -- Most of my friends still serving in jail now.
>> Do you think they would honor their commitment to you that you are free if you returned to China today?
>> I always trust people till I cannot trust, so I would think they would let me be free, as they should keep their words, but it has been proved they -- they never keep their words, so... >> Are you hopeful about the future of China?
>> I'm hopeful for...
I would not say future for China.
China is changing, and nobody can know what exactly the future is going to be.
>> I wonder if that was a way of being careful to not say something.
Are you -- Do you think about how your words are heard in China when you answer questions like that?
>> I'm sure they're monitoring every words -- every sentence I talk.
And -- But that will not affect me.
But only when I'm trying to predict what is going to happen, there's many possibilities, and I don't think we can easily talk about it in my interview.
>> But are any of them hopeful?
>> I don't think so.
Not in a short time.
>> You know, your father was sent for reform through labor in Xinjiang?
You were with him there.
And, of course, that is the site that today is a place where Uyghurs are sent for forced re-education and labor camps.
What is the West's responsibility with respect to human rights in China?
>> What's the responsibility?
I would think, if you just talk a lot, it would be empty words.
Morally and practically, if West are not demanding the very basic values such as human rights, freedom of speech, then the West won't be totally corrupted before China got away.
So this is at least a serious problem.
>> In your book, you were describing the directives of Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution that would be distributed publicly every night.
And then you write -- this is your quote -- So do you see Donald Trump as an authoritarian?
>> I -- Well, I don't -- You know, he -- If you are authoritarian, you have to have a system supporting you.
You cannot just be an authoritarian by yourself.
But certainly, in the United States, with today's condition, you can easily have an authoritarian.
In many ways, you're already in the authoritarian state.
You just don't know it.
>> How so?
>> Many things happening today in U.S. can be compared to Cultural Revolution in China.
>> Like what?
>> Like people trying to be unified in a certain political correctness.
That is very dangerous.
You want to go deeper?
>> Yeah, because actually, that was the next thing I was going to ask you about it.
So what kind of political correct extremism?
>> I -- It's very philosophical.
With today's technology, we know so much more than we really understand.
The information become jammed.
But we don't really -- and really have the knowledge, because you don't work.
You don't -- You don't have to act on anything.
You just think you're purified by certain ideas that you agree with it.
That is posing dangers to society, to an extreme divided society.
>> Why do you think that's happened here?
>> I think, for a long time, the West's material.
We have much more than we needed.
And we are not caring about global situation.
But, eventually, all the policies and the politics we play has to be examined under the global situation, such as China become a very powerful state.
And how the West should deal with it.
>> How should the West deal with Chinese increased influence?
>> In China, we have a wisdom -- to deal with anything, you have to be strong yourself.
I don't think West is strong themself enough to deal with China.
>> In what sense, is the West not strong enough?
>> In many, many ways, if you can't sense how -- what a failure the West by lacking of vision or lacking of compassion in dealing with refugee situation, climate change, and also the war in Afghanistan, Iraq.
>> So I don't think the U.S. has the ability to really examine the situation of its own moral and start behaving.
>> You have, for a long time, called for the freedom of Julian Assange.
You visited him in prison.
You staged a protest against his extradition to the United States.
And last year, you even said quote... Assange has been linked in some reporting -- actually lots of reporting -- to Russian government.
How would that change your view if he is, in fact, acting in concert with or on behalf of an authoritarian regime?
>> Julian Assange exposed U.S. invasion in Afghanistan or Iraq, which, you know, to kill civilians and exposed.
That's a fact.
That's why the U.S. hate him.
You know, it's not because he connect with Russia, but rather because those information U.S. think should not let the public know.
But the public has the right to know.
I think it's very, very important for public to know, and very, very important for journalists have their own possibilities to reveal the truth.
>> Would it change your view of him if you found he were acting in concert with an authoritarian regime?
>> It would not change my view because his platform also may support the U.S. government in some way.
You know, anybody can get the information.
He's only provide that possibility.
He represent journalism, especially investigative journalism.
If he being punished, that means many journalists that act would be questionable, and then no longer to have someone to investigate the government, which very often -- doesn't matter, China or U.S. -- is hiding activities which nobody would ever know.
>> Do you think that any state has the right to keep anything secret?
>> Of course, they all have rights to keep things secret and protect their citizens, but they do not have rights to have secret, to hiding dirty games.
There's a lot of dirty games going on.
>> I think the debate -- right?
-- is over whether Assange threatened individuals who work for the government.
>> People like Assange or Snowden or Chelsea Manning.
This is just a few individuals.
There's a millions work for the government.
It's just jumping out, a few guys, who happen to have a conscience to say, "Hey, this is not something we should do."
>> Do you think that your standing up to Chinese authorities is the same as their standing up to their governments?
>> I think my act in defending human rights or individual freedom would exactly match what they did.
We're in a different location and a different -- facing different problems.
But I understand them very well.
They take personal risk.
They may end up in jail.
If Julian being extradited to U.S., he's facing 175 years in jail by being espionage.
He's a political prisoner.
>> Do you think there's a moral difference between the government of China and the government of the United States?
>> They have a very big difference, but they do have a lot of similarities.
>> In 1968, on the original "Firing Line," William F. Buckley Jr. welcomed Allen Ginsberg, this famous beat generation poet from the United States.
Allen Ginsberg is somebody that your father knew and somebody that you met when you were here in New York.
Take a look at this clip of Allen Ginsberg reciting a poem on the original version of this program in 1968.
>> Breath trembles in white daisies by the roadside.
Heaven breath and my own symmetric airs wavering through antlered green fern drawn in my navel.
Same breath as breathes through Capel-Y-Ffn, sounds of Aleph and Aum through forests of gristle, my skull and Lord Hereford's Knob equal, All Albion One.
>> I kind of like that.
[ Applause ] >> He is truly amazing.
He's not a normal poet.
He's a soul.
He's representing the soul of the intellectual world in America and is so beautiful.
>> Well, it was Ginsberg who told you, "You need to write down your memories."
>> And the first thought is always the best, which has led perhaps to "1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows."
Do you see more joys or more sorrows for your son, Ai Lao?
>> What I'm -- I'm -- I'm satisfied by, if I look back of my experience, I think the joys and the sorrows are half and half.
They balance each other.
And that make me feel satisfied.
>> Ai Weiwei, thank you for being here on "Firing Line," and thank you for your time.
>> Thank you for -- for your posing some tough questions.
I love that.
>> "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... And by... Corporate funding is provided by... ♪ ♪ >> You're watching PBS.