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The story behind the chat with Ai Weiwei

Eric Baculinao/ NBC News

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei answers questions during a Live Chat with msnbc.com readers on Nov. 22.

BEIJING – Many readers wrote in after our chat with artist/activist Ai Weiwei with more questions about the structure of the event and how it worked. I’ll do my best to answer those questions and to give a little more background about what went on inside Ai’s house.

Q. How was Ai Weiwei allowed to do this chat if he’s under house arrest?
A: Ai Weiwei is not under house arrest; he is allowed to travel freely in Beijing, but is unable to leave the city without permission from the government. He is also free to bring guests and co-workers to his Beijing studio, which was the site of the live chat and has been a hive of activity the last few times we’ve come to visit him there.

As for why he was able to do this chat, Ai perhaps said it best during the live chat: “I’m not talking to press, I’m talking to people.” 

Q: What were the Chinese saying about the chat?
A: None of the Chinese state media organizations appeared to report on the live chat. Ai’s name has been blocked on China’s twitter-like service, Weibo, so there was no obvious discussion of the live chat on there either.

Q. Why didn’t my question for Ai show up on the chat screen? Did he read my question?
A: Thousands of people from all over the world left questions for Ai to answer – he managed to get through 16 in a little over an hour. Had we put all the comments up inside the main chat box it would have been difficult for many of our readers to find Ai’s answers among all the questions, comments and criticisms – yes, there was a great deal of the latter in both English and Chinese – left by readers.

While I served as moderator of the event, controlling what showed up on the chat screen and what didn’t, Ai ultimately selected the questions he wished to answer. There were several reasons for this, but it was primarily for us a question of safety for Ai.

While he is free to talk to the public, the reality is that he is still faces serious legal charges for tax evasion and his colleagues are under investigation for pornography. Certain questions that pried deeper into those matters could potentially have brought him further legal trouble from China’s court system.

Similarly, questions that touched on big sensitive subjects like Tiananmen Square, Tibet and Taiwan – the “Three T’s” as they are known among the journalist community here – were likely avoided by Ai as they have already been discussed so much previously and would only have inflamed what is an already tenuous relationship with the Communist government.

Ai initially was happy to listen to the questions read to him as they came in, but as readers began to flood the chat with questions and comments, he increasingly began to spend much of the time standing beside me reading the live feed and sometimes answering questions under his breath as my colleague gamely tried to keep up with him on the keyboard.

In fact, his answer, “I’m not talking to press, I’m talking to people,” came as we were preparing another one of his answers, so we had to track back through the trove of questions to find the one he had answered off the cuff.   

Andy Wong / AP

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei opens his jacket to reveal a shirt bearing his portrait as he walks into the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau on Nov. 16, 2011. Click on the photo to see a complete slideshow of photos.

Q. Did Ai Weiwei really call the Occupy Wall Street movement “primitive” and “hopeless?”

A: This answer was slightly taken out of context by some commentators both in the chat and later in media reports on the event. His answer to a question about his impressions of the Occupy Wall Street movement is below:

9:27  Ai Weiwei:
First I didn’t pay enough attention, but as much as I have to say, I can certainly recognize the need to express the feeling of the people who have suffered from this Walstreet power, that kind of distrust, and misconduct from the Walstreet in many respects. But as a movement it’s a still in a very primitive form, and you can see the kind of hopeless struggle because it seems to have no structure to get the message across, or even let people know what kind of message that is. Or it has become lacking of content or successfully express its own purposes during the development. It’s lack of means to really create changes.

Ai’s intent here was not to call out the entire movement out as hopeless, but to note that from his view, Occupy Wall Street is still in its nascent stages and that it needs structure and cohesiveness to truly become an effective vehicle for meaningful social change.

As Ai noted later, coverage of Occupy Wall Street in the local Chinese media has been stilted. While coverage of Americans camping out to protest Wall Street excess initially drew gleeful editorials from some nationalistic newspapers here in China, censors tempered coverage when officials saw the movement spread to Asia, sparking concern that similar events could be staged on the mainland as well. With largely only official Chinese state media reports and scattered Western sources available, most citizens here are limited in their exposure to coverage of Occupy Wall Street.

As for Ai himself, with so much already going on in his life this year, it’s understandable that he hasn’t made the Occupy Wall Street movement a bigger priority in his life right now.

However, that isn’t to say that he doesn’t empathize with the general sentiment. As he said in his response to an angry reader comment about his answer above: “If I was in N.Y., I’d be a part of it [Occupy Wall Street].”

Q. What was up with the cats?
A: One of the first things you notice when you go to Ai’s studio is how animal friendly the place is. Cats lazily sun themselves out in the courtyard, stalk employees and visitors alike and generally roam freely. Joining them is a rotund cocker spaniel named Daniel who often holds court near Ai’s feet clad in an orange knit sweater.

The night of the live chat was very windy in Beijing and animals and humans alike were scurrying throughout the courtyard to escape the biting cold. Those cats that managed to get in during the live chat generally observed quietly from a distance, but a few of the more adventurous ones decided this was a fine time to curl into laps, walk over laptops and look gamely at the tangerines Ai was eating throughout the talk.

Ai had just finished giving an answer to a question and was busy reading through the live feed of questions when we heard a rattle and then the door suddenly flung wide open followed by two cats and a flurry of leaves flying in.

The howl of the wind and the sudden slam of the door gave some of us quite a start, since for half a second we weren’t sure if it was the Beijing police bringing an unceremonious end to the live chat.

But Ai didn’t bat an eye, “That cat is the smart one, he figured the door out a while ago.”

The cat’s ingenuity and contribution to the chat deserved a mention, but definitely better grammar. Rest assured readers, the bear/bare mistake was embarrassedly noticed by me the moment I hit enter. I promise it won’t happen again.

Q. Will Ai do another one of these live chats again soon?
A: Someone close to Ai once described him as a “social media junkie.” During this live chat, Ai seemed energized by the waves of questions readers sent him and eager to tackle them as best he could.

We here at Behind the Wall thank you for the great questions and comments you sent yesterday and hope that we can make this happen again soon.

Click here to read the complete chat