Dissident artist Ai Weiwei, named the contemporary art world's most powerful figure by an influential art magazine this week, says he will continue to struggle for freedom of expression on the mainland despite restrictions imposed on him.
Ai, whose detention for 81 days this year sparked an international outcry, said yesterday that his top rank on London-based ArtReview's 10th annual 'Power 100' list showed the media and art world were becoming more aware of the political situation in China.
'My art is about communication and about consciousness,' he said. 'My so-called activism is part of my art and I cannot really separate them because my purpose is to protect the very essential right [to] freedom of expression.'
The 54-year-old artist, who also made it to Time magazine's list of 100 most influential people in the world this year, said he had no political ambition, but the right he was promoting 'happened to have become very political'.
Ai - a co-designer of Beijing's National Stadium or 'Bird's Nest' - emerged in the past few years as a vocal critic of the mainland government. His supporters believe his activism, such as his independent investigation into the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, made him a target of the government's wrath.
Ai was taken into custody in April as he prepared to board a flight to Hong Kong. His detention came after Beijing launched a crackdown in February against rights activists, following online calls for a so-called jasmine revolution in China, emulating those in the Middle East and North Africa.
The authorities later accused Ai of 'economic crimes' including tax evasion. He was released from police custody on bail in June.
Ai said his political activism was 'quite dangerous', but vowed he would not back down. 'How can I give up?' he asked. 'That is the value of life and the value of being an artist. It's not a matter of choice.
'Today is a time of change not just in China but also in the world - Arab, Asia, Africa ... so artists always have to play an important role in this kind of change.'
Ai said ordeals like his were more common than people realised and it made the world more aware of problems on the mainland.
'I can use myself as an example for people to understand that ... China is not just some nation which is getting rich, but there is a price to pay for not having these essential rights.'
Ai, who is officially barred from giving press interviews as a condition of his bail, described the government pressure on him as 'huge'. He remains under close watch following his release, although he has resumed speaking out for other dissidents on his Twitter account. 'I can't openly discuss any matter. It's a tremendous problem,' he said.
Talking to Austrian radio last month, the artist said he feared for his safety. 'I may lose my life ... they [the government] can make me disappear,' he said.
ArtReview said on its website: 'Ai's power and influence derive from the fact that his work and his words have become catalysts for international political debates.
'They have reminded his colleagues and the world at large of the fact that freedom of expression is a basic right of any human being.'
At a daily press briefing yesterday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said the magazine's honouring of Ai was politically motivated. 'To make judgment from a political perspective and political prejudice is against the purpose and principle of the magazine,' he said.
Additional reporting by Teddy NgTopics: Film Artificial Intelligence Science Film Art Ai Weiwei Artificial Intelligence Art Ai Weiwei