When he was tapped to help design Beijing's Bird's Nest Stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics, the artist Ai Weiwei hoped the Games and the arena's instantly recognizable weave of curving steel beams would symbolize China’s new openness.
He was disappointed. The Chinese dissident widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest living artists has repeatedly described the stadium and the 2008 Olympics as a “fake smile” that his native country presented to the world.
Now the Bird’s Nest is about to host the Feb. 4 opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics, and Ai expects more of the same.
“As an architect, my goal was the same as other architects, that is, to design it as perfectly as possible,” Ai told The Associated Press in an interview over email. “The way it was used afterwards went in the opposite direction from our ideals. We had hoped that our architecture could be a symbol of freedom and openness and represent optimism and a positive force, which was very different from how it was used as a promotional tool in the end.”
Even before his fame landed him the design job working with a Swiss architectural firm, Ai had been an unrelenting critic of the Chinese Communist Party. He was jailed in 2011 in China for unspecified crimes and now lives in exile in Portugal. He has also lived in exile in Germany — he still maintains a studio there — and in Britain.
His art — which also includes sculpture, photography, video and the written word — is almost always provocative, and he offers scathing commentary on the censorship and lack of civil liberties in his homeland.
He used his dashed hopes for the Bird’s Nest to illustrate how China has changed since 2008, a time that the Olympics were seen as a “coming out” party for China.
When the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the Olympics in 2001, it said the Games could help improve human rights. But Ai termed the 2008 Olympics a “low point” as migrant workers were forced out of the city, small shops were shuttered and street vendors removed. Blocks-long billboards popped up, painted with palm trees and beach scenes, to hide shabby neighborhoods from view.
“The entire Olympics took place under the situation of a blockade,” Ai told AP. “For the general public, there was no joy in participation. Instead, there was a close collaboration between the IOC and the Chinese regime, "who put on a show together in order to obtain economic and political capital.”
His memoir “1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows” was published last year. It details the overlap of his life and career with that of his father, Ai Qing, a famous poet who was sent into internal exile in 1957, the year Ai Weiwei was born.
In the book, Ai writes that he watched the opening ceremony away from the stadium on a television screen, and jotted down the following.
“In this world where everything has a political dimension, we are now told we mustn’t politicize things: This is simply a sporting event, detached from history and ideas and values — detached from human nature, even.”
The IOC and China again say the Olympics are divorced from politics. China, of course, has political ends in mind. For the IOC, the Olympics are a sports business that generates billions in sponsor and television income.
In his email, Ai described China as emboldened by the 2008 Olympics — “more confident and uncompromising.” He said the 2008 Games were a “negative” that allowed China’s government to better shape its message. The Olympics did not change China in ways the IOC suggested, or foster civil liberties.
Instead, China used the Olympics to alter how it was perceived on the world stage and to signal its rising power.
The 2008 Games were followed a month later by the world financial crisis, and in 2012 by the rise of General Secretary Xi Jinping. Xi was a senior politician in charge of the 2008 Olympics, but the 2022 Games are his own.
“Since 2008, the government of China has further strengthened its control, and the human rights situation has further deteriorated,” Ai told AP.
“China has seen the West’s hypocrisy and inaction when it comes to issues of human rights, so they have become even bolder, more unscrupulous and more ruthless. In 2022, China will impose more stringent constraints to the internet and political life," including human rights and the press, he said.
The Communist Party "does not care if the West participates in the Games or not because China is confident that the West is busy enough with their own affairs.”
Ai characterized the 2022 Winter Olympics and the pandemic as a case of fortunate timing for China’s authoritarian government. The pandemic will limit the movement of journalists during the Games, and it will also showcase the state’s Orwellian control.
“China, under the system of state capitalism and especially after COVID, firmly believes that its administrative control is the only effective method; this enhances their belief in authoritarianism. Meanwhile, China thinks that the West, with its ideas of democracy and freedom, can hardly obtain effective control. So, the 2022 Olympics will further testify to the effectiveness of authoritarianism in China and the frustration of the West’s democratic regimes.”
Ai was repeatedly critical of the IOC as an enabler interested solely in generating income from the Chinese market. The IOC and China both see the Games as a business opportunity. Ai suggested that many Chinese see the Olympics as another political exercise, with some people — like athletes — trying to extract value.
“In China there is only the party’s guidance, state-controlled media and people who have been brainwashed by the media,” Ai wrote. “There is no real civil society. Under this circumstance, Chinese people are not interested in the Olympics at all because it is simply a display of state politics. Nationally trained athletes exchange Olympic gold medals for economic gains for individuals or even for sport organizations; this way of doing things deviates from the Olympics’ original ideas.”
Asked if he planned to go back to China, he said he was doubtful. And he dismissed the effectiveness of the West's diplomatic boycott, which means government officials will not attend.
“Judging from the current situation, it is more and more unlikely for me to be able to return to China,” he said. “My main point here is that the situation in China has worsened. The West’s boycott is futile and pointless. China does not care about it at all.”
AP Sports Writer Stephen Wade reported for The Associated Press from Beijing for 2 1/2 years in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, and also the follow-up.