Ai Weiwei Hits Out at Self-Censorship by Western Organizations After Film is Cut

2019-02-21
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Outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, in undated photo.
Outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, in undated photo.
Ai Weiwei

Outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has hit out at the censorship of a film segment he directed from a compilation film titled "Berlin, I Love You," saying it was likely the result of self-censorship on the part of Western organizations, rather than direct pressure from Beijing.

Ai was invited to direct the first episode of several that would go to make the feature-length film in 2015, which is part of the "Cities of Love" series, he said via his Instagram account.

"At this time, I was living under soft detention in Beijing and unable to leave China," he wrote. "I remotely directed the episode from my studio in Beijing, watching through the computer screen as my son rode his bicycle along the Berlin Wall Memorial."

But while Ai's contribution was used to promote the film, he didn't discover it had been cut until the film was released in the U.S. on Feb. 8, he said.

"It was infuriating to find our involvement had been erased, especially since we had not received any prior notice from the production team," Ai said in a statement.

"The reason we were given for the episode's removal was that my political status had made it difficult for the production team to secure further funding," he said.

"We discovered that one of the executive producers of the film is also producing a Shanghai installment of the series."

When contacted by RFA for comment, Ai said that the producers had come under "various kinds of pressure" to remove his contribution to the film.

"They were told my segment couldn't be in it, or else it would have a negative impact on the distribution of the film, and that most investors ... wouldn't want to fund it," he said.

"I believe their explanation ... and they were told in no uncertain terms by the [Berlin Film Festival] that it was to do with my contribution," Ai said.

Ai said his involvement in the production "sent out a signal" that the producers and festival organizers feared would anger the Chinese Communist Party.

"Most of this censorship actually originated with Western organizations," he said. "They are engaged in self-censorship so as to comply with China's censorship regime."

"This is internalized political pressure, not necessarily something that the Chinese government has told them directly," Ai said. "But they are adamant about it because of problems they have encountered in the past."

Withdrawals and deletions are common

Ai cited the example of "One Second," by acclaimed director Zhang Yimou, who withdrew his entry to the festival for "technical" reasons, amid an ever-tightening climate of censorship under the administration of President Xi Jinping.

Commentators said Zhang's move was also likely an example of self-censorship.

Requests for comment made to the Berlin Film Festival offices on Wednesday met with no reply at the time of writing.

Beijing-based artist Hua Yong said such withdrawals and deletions are extremely common in the Chinese film industry and artistic community.

"Chinese intellectuals can't even speak out or publish things online, let alone in exhibitions," Hua said. "As for what happened with Ai Weiwei, I can only make a guess, which is that there was something about it that couldn't be laid on the table."

Ye Yaoyuan, assistant professor at the Center for International Studies at Texas' University of St. Thomas said that both political and commercial interests were likely involved in the decision.

"The Chinese Communist Party's role behind-the-scenes resulted in them removing -- and silencing -- something that should have been screened," Ye said. "The cutting of his section was the result of political intervention, and we don't know what other commercial interests were operating behind the scenes."

Suspicions were raised when Zhang Yimou withdrew his film that festival sponsor Audi, which has a strong foothold in China, may have influenced the move.

Ye said the organizers were in a difficult position.

"It doesn't look good if they insist [on the screening], nor does it look good if they make concessions," he said. "The person who holds the purse-strings is boss, so of course they're going to listen to the sponsors."

Last October, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) said in a report that China's Communist Party is using multiple methods to "export its authoritarianism."

Chinese practices included “interference in multilateral institutions; threatening and intimidating rights defenders and their families; imposing censorship mechanisms on foreign publishers and social media companies,” it said.

Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Jia Ao for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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