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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Who is in Jeremy Corbyn's new shadow cabinet?

Folllowing the resignation of over a dozen MPs, Jeremy Corbyn has begun appointing a new front bench.

Following an attempted coup over the weekend, Jeremy Corbyn has begun forming his new shadow cabinet, appointing MPs to replace the numerous front bench resignations that have taken place over the last 24 hours.

The cabinet is notable for containing a relatively large proportion of MPs from the 2015 intake, many of whom were also among the 36 MPs who nominated Corbyn as a leadership candidate last year. 

Emily Thornberry

Shadow Foreign Secretary

Thornberry, a former human rights barrister, served under Ed Miliband as shadow attorney general until she resigned in 2014 following a “snobbish” tweet about an England flag sent on the day of the Rochester by-election. The MP for Islington South since 2005, she returned to the shadow cabinet in 2010 as Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow employment minister, and then helped him out of a difficult position by accepting the position of shadow defence secretary in the January 2016 reshuffle after a spat between her predecessor, Angela Eagle, and Ken Livingstone.

Diane Abbott

Shadow Health Secretary

Diane Abbott, known for her forthright interventions on a wide variety of subjects as well as her zany appearances on the This Week sofa with Michael Portillo, has held a health brief before – she was shadow minister for public health under Ed Miliband (although she was sacked in 2013, saying “Ed wanted more message discipline”). A long-time ally of Corbyn’s – they had a brief relationship in the 1970s – she nominated him for the leadership and accepted the post of shadow international development secretary upon his victory in September 2015.

Pat Glass

Shadow Education Secretary

Pat Glass, a former Labour councillor in the north-east, was elected to parliament for North West Durham in 2010. She was initially appointed shadow education minister in September 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn first formed his shadow cabinet, and was then reshuffled to shadow Europe in January 2016. She now returns to her old brief.

Andy McDonald

Shadow Transport Secretary 

McDonald entered parliament in 2012 after the by-election following Stuart Bell’s death. He served Emily Thornbery as PPS from 2013, and then joined the shadow cabinet in January 2016 to replace Jonathan Reynolds as shadow minister for rail (Reynolds resigned in protest after Corbyn sacked Pat McFadden).

Clive Lewis

Shadow Defence Secretary

Clive Lewis is part of the 2015 intake, and has been a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. He was appointed shadow energy minister in September 2015, and has been staunch in his opposition to Trident renewal. He has military experience, having done a three-month combat tour of Afghanistan in 2009.

Rebecca Long-Bailey

Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Rebecca Long-Bailey is MP for Salford and Eccles elected in 2015. She previously worked as a solicitor, and was given the backing of Unite and Salford’s elected mayor Ian Stewart when she decided to run for parliament.

Long-Bailey was one of the MPs who nominated Corbyn for the leadership in 2015. After winning the leadership, Corbyn used her to replace Hilary Benn on Labour’s NEC.

Kate Osamor

Shadow International Development Secretary

Kate Osamor is the MP for Edmonton, also elected in 2015. She is Labour Co-operative politician, and was previously a GP practice manager.

Osamor also nominated Corbyn for leader. In January, she was made Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities.

Read a profile with Osamor from last year.

Rachael Maskell

Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary

Rachael Maskell is the MP for York Central, elected in 2015. Before becoming an MP, she was a care-worker and physiotherapist in the NHS. She is committed to improving mental health services and has served on the Health Select Committee since July.

Until recently, she worked on the Shadow Defence Team under Maria Eagle.

Cat Smith

Shadow Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs

Cat Smith has been the MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood since 2015. Prfeviously Shadow Minister for Women, Smith worked for Corbyn before entering parliament, and was one of the 36 MPs to nominate him for the leadership in 2016.

Lancashire Constabulary are currently investigating allegations that Smith breached spending limits on election campaigning.

Dave Anderson

Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary

Dave Anderson has been the MP for Blaydon since 2005. He worked as a miner until 1989 and then subsequently as a care worker, during which time he was also an activist in UNISON.

He has been a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee since 2005, with a longstanding interest in the Peace Process. In early 2015, Anderson was one of the signatories of an open letter to then leader Ed Miliband calling on Labour to oppose authority and renationalise the railways.