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Chinese Artist & Filmmaker Ai Weiwei on State Violence from Mexico to Hong Kong to Xinjiang

StoryJanuary 28, 2020
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In 2014, 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College disappeared after they were abducted in Iguala, Mexico. More than five years after their disappearance, the families of the students are still fighting for justice. The story is the subject of a stunning new documentary by the world-renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. The film, “Vivos,” follows the families of the disappeared students in their daily lives as they grapple with the absence of their loved ones and attempt to hold the Mexican government accountable for their disappearance. We sat down with Ai Weiwei earlier this week at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, to speak with him about “Vivos,” why his next project will focus on Hong Kong, and more.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah, from the Sundance Film Festival, as we continue to look at the legacy of state violence in Mexico, now through the devastating story of the Ayotzinapa 43, the 43 students who disappeared in September of 2014 after they were brutally attacked and abducted by police forces in Iguala, Mexico. They have not been seen since. More than five years after their disappearance, the families of the students are still fighting for justice. Their struggle is the subject of a stunning new documentary by the world-renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. It’s called Vivos. It premiered here at Sundance. I sat down with Ai Weiwei and asked him about why he made the film about the Ayotzinapa 43.

AI WEIWEI: Well, I started with, I was invited for a art exhibition in Mexico. I was a bit hesitated, because I don’t know Mexico culture that much, and so I have to find a project which I can get myself involved and also to go different layers of the society, so I can learn the culture and what Mexican is about. So, by chance, I find out there’s 43 students disappeared. And that bothers me a lot, because I did a research in China, when I was in China, in Wenchuan earthquake. There’s also many, many students disappeared.

So, we always think students or young people is the future of a society. And how could that happen? And what really happened to them? And what is after when people disappear, never comes back home? So, I have a very strong curiosity. I think that will be a study case for me to understand Mexican culture, its past and its current situation. And that’s how I got into — what got me into this filmmaking. Certainly, this is a case which is not very uncommon in Mexico. Disappearance and the violence happens every day. And very few cases has been really solved. Over 90% of murder cases never been — they will never find justice in relation to those kind of very violent, very brutal killings.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in this case, though, with these 43 young students, they were going to a teachers’ college, very progressive, deeply concerned about educating the poor in their country, many of them poor themselves. They disappear. Although you don’t focus on exactly what’s happened, it is very clear from your documentary that there was some kind of collusion between the state, the federal and local and state police, and drug gangs. Explain what you believe took place. And then we’ll talk about your main emphasis, which was showing, in this slow-moving but riveting documentary, how it has integrated into the life of the Mayan people, the people who lost their loved ones.

AI WEIWEI: First, what I have learned is Mexico is a society which have very deep corruption, in terms of judicial corruption. And also, in this case, the local government and the police and also the army and the cartels, the crime family, they all are involved. They’re all part of this incident.

And this case involved — generates a great concern, because it’s such a special case. It relates to students, and it relates to the government. And so, internationally, there’s a lot of attention. And there has been a effort for investigation. But, of course, the investigation been stopped by the government. So, nobody know 'til today where those 43 students are. You know, there's a lot of different assumptions, but none of them really have a solid base.

So, that makes me really wonder, “How could this happen in such a condition that the truth cannot even come out?” But at the same time, you realize, in the world many cases may look different, but it has similar — similar condition, because the truth never comes out. And then, what I concerned is not just what happened, but what really happened as when someone never comes back home, and those people still alive and the consequence of this kind of injustice or the effect to the society and to the culture. So that’s why the film is not a investigation type of a film, but rather to see the clear facts when children not come back home, and who their parents are, and what kind of effect when social justice is not achieved.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you talk about the state, together with these drug gangs, what’s believed took place, and the United States. Can you talk about the effect of the “war on drugs” on the people of Mexico — the so-called war on drugs?

AI WEIWEI: The so-called war on drugs, it’s built the local government very powerful in terms of a military and the police. And also it’s one of the cause of the huge corruption, because that become a moneymaking machine for the local government. And that cause the corruption, the officials be connected with drug lords. And they become — it functions as the local economy depends on so-called drug wars. And other drugs come to the market, which is the United States. So, I think, in many ways, U.S. cannot say they are not responsible in what happened in Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: You have both the crisis of what’s happening in Mexico, the U.S.-funded Mexican military and police that crack down on the Mexican people, and then you have the wall that the U.S. is trying to build on the border. You know well what walls mean. Of course, you come from China, the Great Wall of China. If you can talk about what the significance of this wall is that President Trump tries to build on the southern border?

AI WEIWEI: I think what the wall will build between U.S. and Mexico is really a symbolic one. We all know the wall cannot stop the poverty and cannot stop the peoples eager to have more freedom or have a freedom to choose their — to survive, to choose their location. So, what the wall really functions is a symbolic. It’s a wall building in our mind and heart, and to refuse to bear responsibility and refuse to share and refuse to have a compassion with those, you know, immediate neighbor.

And many of their poverty are caused by us. So, today, in this so-called globalization, and the U.S. or the West, its prosper condition is very much based on explore the conditions of the undeveloped nations. The Mexican police, when they shoot those students, the guns they use is from Germany. And, you know, so many things, you can immediately find traces of this rich nation’s benefit, profited from the property, from the people eager to make it. And this continues, and, you know, with China, with many, many other nations. You know, they dump all the pollutions and all the impossible, inhuman or no-protection labor market into those nations. And at the same time, they are not supporting the democracy in those kind of states, because they know democracy will not make them so easy to be profited.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about Western nations profiting from areas that are less developed. You are making both your film — you’ve just finished your film in Mexico, and you’re now making another film, in Hong Kong. Explain what has brought you back to China, to Hong Kong, to do this film about the protests there.

AI WEIWEI: Hong Kong has started its protesting since last June. It’s already lasting for over half a year. Every weekend, sometimes even in the weekdays, Hong Kong young people are trying to demand their freedom and to demand the Chinese government not to imply its authoritarian practice into Hong Kong. So, that will be end of Hong Kong, so young people are very brave and very idealistic, almost like naive, because now, gradually, they become very educated. They know what kind of power they are facing. But they are so determined. Nothing can let them back off.

And this is a very beautiful revolution, I should say. It set a perfect example of the next generation on how they would fight with this kind of powerful state power. But, of course, they are being crushed. And people are missing. The bodies are found in the river. They jump out of window, and the brutal cover-up from the police part and the Hong Kong. Basically, the leader from Hong Kong is a puppet of our Chinese government. And the lady, she has refused any kind of conversation or real communication.

And so, this fight will continue, and it will go on. And there’s no way to solve it. On one side there is China, the very — the dictatorship, and they never use to negotiating, and they don’t care. If the whole Hong Kong being wiped out, they still would not care. But on the other side is young people who demand a very essential living condition, which is their freedom. It’s not asking for other things.

So, of course, it so much relate to my struggle. And I send my team there from the very beginning, and they’ve covered the whole struggle, and it’s still going on. So we are trying to give the moral support and to save those images and to try to come out from — make a film about it, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what you understand is happening in Xinjiang province now with the Uyghurs, what we understand and what we don’t understand.

AI WEIWEI: What we see today is Xinjiang has built huge camps for Uyghurs, and which can contains million, millions of Uyghurs. And that’s the information we get from all kind of research or leaked papers. But what we don’t know is that policy is since 1949. Communists start to get to the power. They have this hidden policy, how to solve those minorities. They call “minorities” different races, such as the Tibetans, Uyghurs or even the Mongolian people. And the way they’re doing this is to try to send more Chinese people into those areas.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a column for The New York Times called “Capitalism and 'Culturecide': The idea of 'cultural differences' has been used as a justification for some of humanity’s worst crimes.” But you say it’s actually not so distant. You talk about The New York Times publishing these 400 pages of internal government documents on the rationale and techniques of this “culturecide,” Beijing denying the existence of the camps, but it never claimed that the documents were inauthentic. It announced the trainees in its re-education centers have all graduated. What does that mean?

AI WEIWEI: It’s very even hard to explain. Chinese government, they never can meet the challenge when we talk about the truth or fact. They use all kind of other line or other language which would confuse the people. So, at the beginning, they refused this ever even exist, to have these kind of camps. Then, gradually, they said, “Yes, there’s camps, but that’s just for education, to help them to get new jobs or to help them to understand some kind of harmonious society.” And then they say the leaked-out papers found out this is a very pragmatic or designed camp to try to really make the different races disappear. Then they said, “OK, they already” — how do you say — “graduated.” Come on. How many are they? Where are they? After graduation, you know, do you have a name? Or can you really openly to let international journalists to go in to really examine the situation? They would never do it.

AMY GOODMAN: What does “culturecide” mean?

AI WEIWEI: “Culturecide” means many things. I think it means trying to — can mean trying to destroy a culture or trying to mock a culture in different — to hide the discriminate or racist act, with the argument to make a control or to make they disappear.

AMY GOODMAN: And you talk about how culturecide is converging with predatory capitalism. You say, “Multinational corporations including Volkswagen, Siemens, Unilever and Nestlé have factories there. Supply chains for Muji and Uniqlo depend on Xinjiang, and companies such as H&M, Esprit and Adidas use Xinjiang cotton. We might ask: What is it about this remote place, to which the emperors of old banished criminals in lieu of sending them to prison, that makes it so attractive?”

AI WEIWEI: Yeah, that’s the present. In this globalization, the capitalism developed into the maximum speed or scale, which they would never imagine in the colonial time. You know, so, there, I think the capitalism really built the strongest possible relations with the authoritarian society. And in today, the — we call it borders, is not real borders. You know, if we look at what those biggest companies or corporations, how they function, then you would realize so-called China and U.S. war, economics, or, how do you call, treaty war, which is really just a — it’s an illusion. It’s not really possible, because, basically, China has bought so much economic — how do you say? The —

AMY GOODMAN: Benefit?

AI WEIWEI: Not only benefit. It’s very much integrated with U.S. economy. You know, the treasurer and the bank, all those things, there are Chinese investments in there. So you cannot even really say we can separate.

AMY GOODMAN: Ai Weiwei, world-renowned Chinese artist and activist. His documentary Vivos premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival. To see our previous interview, on his first documentary, go to democracynow.org. From Park City TV in Utah, I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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