Behind the scenes: what's it like to edit a magazine in a language no one in the office speaks?

Sophie Elmhirst on the story behind Ai Weiwei's guest-edit of the New Statesman.

Ai Weiwei agreed to guest edit the New Statesman in April this year. We had sent the invitation to him six months earlier via his London representatives, the Lisson Gallery, but, understandably, it took him a little while to respond. Last year, Ai spent 81 days in detention. An artist already renowned for his work and fearless irreverence towards the Chinese authorities became a global cause when he was arrested at Beijing Capital Airport and detained in a secret location. Given the level of international attention and the ongoing pressure on Ai even after he was released (he was quickly filed with a £1.5m fine for tax evasion), it seemed unlikely that we would hear back from him. But then, suddenly, he said yes.

Looking back, that out-of-nowhere yes makes more sense than it did at the time. After spending a week with Ai at his studio in Beijing, I learned that he likes to do things on instinct. The more unexpected an opportunity, the more attractive it is to him, especially if it offers a platform for challenging the Chinese government. And when he says yes, he means yes.

The project took shape gradually. It was inevitably going to be unlike any of our previous guest edits. Lisson Gallery put me in touch with Ai’s studio team in Beijing and we arranged to speak over Skype. Ai’s working hours are strict – he’s in the studio in the morning, and then out with his son in the afternoon – so the call had to happen at 4am UK time. I sat at home in my pyjamas with a laptop on my knees and found myself, half asleep, waving at Ai on the screen. We spoke for a few minutes and established two things: his issue of the New Statesman was going to be about China and its future and to make it work I should probably go to Beijing (the prospect of a series of 4am Skype calls seemed improbable to us both).

I went to Beijing on a Sunday in August, officially as a tourist (it’s unlikely I would have been welcomed into the country on a media visa with my contact in China listed as Ai Weiwei, the country’s most famous dissident) and the next day, I met Ai for the first time at his studio, in a north-east suburb of Beijing called Caochangdi. It’s a beautiful place – leafy and peaceful and in marked contrast to the sweaty, polluted streets of the city. Ai lives on one side with his wife Lu Qing and works on the other with his team. I didn’t know how much time he would be able to give me or the project – his schedule is fiercely busy and the demands on it at the time were multiple: his first major US show (now open at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC), a new book, fighting his tax case and entertaining the daily round of journalists, gallerists and friends that stop by the studio. But from that first morning onwards, Ai’s energy, attention to detail and commitment to his edition of the New Statesman has been unwavering and inspiring.

From the off, Ai had a clear idea of what he wanted to do. As he says in his leader, “I chose to dedicate my issue of the magazine to China, its people, its history, its culture, its current situation and its future.” He wanted to cover censorship, women’s rights, the justice system, Tibet, youth culture – and had a long list of potential contributors consisting of fellow Chinese activists, artists and writers. But it was during casual conversation that the true purpose of his editorship became clear. In meeting after meeting, he would be sidetracked from practical discussions about word counts and photography commissions to berate his government’s greed and corruption and to talk about his fears for his people (China’s blind population who you never see on the streets or the city’s construction workers from rural villages who sleep by the side of building sites and can only return home once a year). Ai himself might be celebrated the world over, but his attention and concern is reserved for the small fates of his countrymen, the people who nobody knows.

Over a week in Beijing I met with Ai almost every day and his team – a group of highly talented and motivated photographers, organisers and writers in their own right – pitched a stream of ideas. We could have made a book: the challenge was to edit down the material into a series of pieces that could fit into a magazine. And there was another test too: language. The vast majority of this issue of the New Statesman – for the first time in its history - was written originally in Chinese by Chinese writers, activists, academics and artists. After I returned from Beijing and had firmed up with Ai and his team which article commissions, photography essays and interviews were going to be included, we started, slowly but surely, to receive the copy, which had to be translated into English and then edited in both languages. The plan from the start was to produce the issue in both Chinese and English (see deputy editor Helen Lewis’s account of distributing the Chinese version behind the “great firewall”). Usually we produce one magazine a week; this time it was two, with one version in a language that no one in the New Statesman office could speak, read or write. But with the help of translators, Chinese friends, Ai Weiwei and his team we got there in the end.

You’ll see, if you buy a copy of the magazine, how much work Ai himself has done. Yes, he had the support of both his team and the NS, but from page to page he has conducted interviews, taken photographs, selected images and edited text. He told me in Beijing that he loves the written word more than any other medium - for its specificity, and ability to communicate precise meaning. This edition of the NS contains many words – his own and others – but perhaps it’s the final words of his leader that carry the most weight:

“If I have one message for you, the readers of the New Statesman magazine, whether you are reading this in English or in Mandarin, on the page or online, it is this: the only way we can be successful, in China and in life, is through greater communication and wider awareness, in constantly questioning our standards and our conditions. You, as readers, are part of this, you are active members of this family, and you can be proud of that. We should all be proud of that.”

Ai Weiwei in his studio outside Beijing. Photo: Sophie Elmhirst

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.