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Meet the most interesting person in China

Artist, government critic, blogger, Twitter pioneer. Now Ai Weiwei wants to shut down the internet for a day.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei at his studio and home on the outskirts of Beijing. (Sharron Lovell)

BEIJING — Ai Weiwei believes in the power of the internet. That’s precisely why on July 1, he wants China to stop using it.

A general internet strike — no work, no games, no email or anything else online — for 24 hours on the date the government plans to require censorship software on all new computers, he says, will be a quiet act of rebellion. Not coincidentally, July 1 is the 88th anniversary of the Communist Party of China. Though he posted the idea, Ai wants to leave the meaning to those who participate.

“I gave almost no explanation about why I’m doing it,” Ai said. “I just give the structure and people will fill in their own meaning. I don’t want to be political first. I wanted to set up an act that everyone can easily accept, and then realize the power later.

“I want people to see their own power,” he said.

In an interview Tuesday in the sunny courtyard of his studio complex in Beijing, the renowned artist, party critic and iconoclast spoke about how he uses Twitter (at last count, he has 3,390 followers), its Chinese counterpart Fanfou and blogs as his favorite platforms to push the boundaries of free expression in China. He is relentless in posting, often using humor and poetry to make points. Though his words at times seem whimsical, he is just as often fierce.

Ai says he doesn’t think about what he will post before he sits down at the computer each morning to update his web musings. He just writes. On Monday, he was tired and dwelling on the case of a man murdered in central China. Locals swelled the streets to protest and police quelled the demonstrations. A thought jumped into his mind: call for an internet strike to protest the “Green Dam” filtering software the government is requiring on all new computers. Despite widespread international and domestic criticism of the software requirement, official media now say the government “will not back away” from its plans.

Ai’s criticism of the government is not new. When the web portal sina.com invited him to write a celebrity blog in November of 2005, the artist didn’t know how to type. Yet he quickly became prolific, blogging 3,000 posts within three years.

“Very soon, they started to regret it,” Ai said of sina.com’s decision to give him a prominent blog. “I started to write a lot — too much.”

The blog, which quietly moved from the front page soon after Ai started, was deleted when Ai pushed the limits with a project to document all students killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a campaign that also earned him police visits and warnings ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. Three blogs later, he’s still writing.

Somewhat ironically, Ai is perhaps most widely known outside of China as the man who helped design the Bird’s Nest — the Chinese National Stadium that became the symbol of the 2008 Olympics, even though he distanced himself from that long before the games began. It now seems a fluke, a blip in Ai’s long career as a gadfly. Here in his studio, blogging away, he’s clearly engaged, interested and challenged. He grew up an outsider, his poet father Ai Qing banished to the western deserts during the Cultural Revolution. It’s a role that seems to suit him, but even he isn’t quite clear how he gets away with it.

Minutes after his Twitter post calling for an internet strike, journalists began calling him for comment. Reaction among his blog readers is mixed, and news about the strike call has been scrubbed by censors from the most widely read sites. (Though Ai may be striking a chord: According to his Twitter feed late Tuesday, he says his Fanfou account has been shut down.)

Ai himself is realistic about the odds of China’s nearly 300 million internet users logging off for a day. Many people, he said, don’t understand the metaphor.

“Chinese people are very practical,” he says. “They think ‘Oh, what’s that going to do?’”

A comment on his blog bore that out, saying, “I would love to support this with my action, but China is too big and a lot of people don't care about the overall society.”

Ai’s point: No matter how many people are involved, it’s the simple act of defiance that matters more than ongoing arguments online.

“It’s an act, rather than just talk,” he added. “A small act is worth a million thoughts.

“It’s a warm-up. Let’s see what we can do from there,” he said.

Read more about China and the internet:

In China, this photo may be porn

Net censorship, propaganda on the rise

Would you want the government to read your mail?

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/china-and-its-neighbors/090623/meet-the-man-who-wants-shut-down-the-internet-china