From new Portuguese home, Ai Weiwei plans tribute to "visionary" Gorbachev

MONTEMOR-O-NOVO, Portugal (Reuters) - Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident whose activist art has made him Beijing’s best-known critic, has swapped life in British exile for Portugal, where, in a countryside estate east of Lisbon, he is working on a monument commemorating Mikhail Gorbachev.

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Ai’s move to Berlin in 2015, partly out of gratitude at German lobbying for his passport to be restored, was hailed as a sign of the city’s cultural and political ascendancy, just as many saw his 2019 move to Britain as a vote of confidence in that country’s post-Brexit future.

But Ai said that, while he would keep a base in Cambridge, where his son goes to school, and a studio in Berlin, he was happy in Portugal, where he lives in a villa with a pool surrounded by a lush, green lawn, and keeps two cages of exotic birds.

“I love Portugal,” Ai, 63, said sitting in his garden under the winter sun. “I will stay here long-term unless something happens.”

Ai, who helped design the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ famed Bird’s Nest stadium before falling foul of a regime that briefly imprisoned him, lamented China’s lack of a Gorbachev figure.

He also criticised the European Union’s new investment pact with China, telling Reuters that Europe was storing up problems for itself by cosying up to a “very strategic” China.

He praised Gorbachev, who turned 90 this week, for allowing the authoritarian Soviet Union to unwind peacefully, warning that China faced a difficult future if it did not follow the same path.

Gorbachev is a contested figure, hailed in countries that are no longer controlled from Moscow as a visionary who refrained from meeting pro-democracy protesters with violence, but many in Moscow and Beijing see him as a dangerous bungler who allowed a great power to collapse.

“To this day we don’t see anyone like Gorbachev in China,” he said. “But if China doesn’t have political reform like what Gorbachev initiated, there will be no good result of China’s economic development.”

Working with Slovene activist Jaka Bizilj’s Cinema for Peace foundation, which brought Russian dissident Alexei Navalny to Berlin for treatment after he was poisoned in Russia last year, Ai plans a Gorbachev monument for the centre of Berlin, the formerly divided city that stood on the Cold War’s front lines.

“Gorbachev is one of the most important thinkers, visionaries, who helped establish a new possibility for society,” he said. “And Berlin is a very political city... Gorbachev is always symbolic for people seeking freedom.”

Reporting by Catarina Demoney in Montemor-o-Novo and Thomas Escritt in Berlin; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky