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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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