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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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.