New Statesman Ai Weiwei guest edit shortlisted for Amnesty Award

Ai Weiwei, Cheng Yizhong and the New Statesman nominated.

Amnesty International have announced the shortlist for their 2013 Media Awards, and the New Statesman has been nominated for a series of three articles published in our 22 October issue guest-edited by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Amnesty’s Media Awards “recognize excellence in human rights reporting and acknowledge journalism’s significant contribution to the UK public’s awareness and understanding of human rights issues.”

Ai Weiwei is an internationally renowned artist and a free speech advocate. He was previously detained by the Chinese government on charges of tax evasion and is still prevented from leaving the country. He is currently appealing a fine imposed by the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau for $1.85m.

The New Statesman’s editorial team spent six months working closely with Ai and his team in Beijing to produce an ambitious issue dedicated to China and its future. The three nominated articles are : “Fact have blood as evidence”, an interview Ai conducted with blind civil activist Chen Guangcheng; the “The Virus of Censorship”, in which newspaper editor Cheng Yizhong reveals how journalists in China are kept in a state of fear and endemic self-censorship through government manipulation and policing; and “Meet the 50 Cent Party”, which saw Ai Weiwei expose the underworld of state-sponsored commentators by interviewing an unnamed twenty six year old graduate who explained the process by which he is hired to influence the thoughts of ‘netizens’.

The issue was published bilingually, produced as a digital issue in Mandarin and a print edition in English.  With original content from Chinese journalists, authors, artists and musicians, the magazine was edited in a foreign language for the first time in its history. It was a rewarding challenge that our commissioning editor Sophie Elmhirst outlined eloquently in this post-production blog.

The New Statesman and Ai Weiwei also jointly launched a Twitter campaign which posed the question “what is the future of China?” to ordinary citizen and collated thousands of responses, a selection of which were published in the magazine.

Following publication, we urged readers to download and to share the issue, for free, across social networking websites in an attempt to breach “The Great Firewall”. Our deputy Helen Lewis reiterated our commitment to free, uncensored journalism in this blog post - which offers links to the magazine as a sharable torrent file, magnet link and PDF.  

These three features revealed a side of China rarely seen in the west, and would never have seen publication in their authors’ home country. This issue was an act of solidarity with like-minded writers on the other side of the world; a promise that we would do our part to give a home to their stories, so often stifled. In his leader for the issue, Ai wrote:

I chose to dedicate my issue of the magazine to China, its people, its history, its culture, its current situation and its future. My country has to recognise itself, which is a challenge to anybody at any stage in life.

…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.

The New Statesman is nominated alongside Janine di Giovanni’s Seven Days in Syria, published by Granta, in the Consumer Magazine category.

The issue has also been shortlisted for the British Media Award’s Cross Media project.

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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain