Ai Weiwei says his mother, 90, warns him not to return to China | Ai Weiwei

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei said his desire to be reunited with his 90-year-old mother could lead him to return to China, but that she begged him not to leave his British exile.

The sculptor and activist, who splits his time between Cambridge and Portugal, spent 81 days in detention in Beijing in 2011 and left the country four years later with his passport returned.

Asked by Chris Patten, the former Hong Kong governor, at an event in London whether people who had fled Hong Kong after the recent political crackdown should return, Ai, 65, explained his own daily dilemma.

“I can’t answer for others and I think each person has to decide according to their circumstances,” he said. “My situation is that I have a mother who is 90 years old and calls me all the time on the phone. She thinks I’m her baby boy…

“He always said the last sentence: ‘Don’t come back.’ So, it is very difficult to answer such a question. It makes perfect sense to go back because my mom is my only parent there. [But] if anything is keeping me from going back it’s my mom. Of course, there is a strong possibility that I will never be able to return home or end up somewhere not very desirable.”

Ai’s father was the poet Ai Ching, a member of the Chinese Communist Party and a friend of Mao Zedong. Ai Qing was sent to a labor camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang, during a purge when Ai Weiwei was one year old. The family was then exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang, and returned to Beijing in 1976 after Mao’s death.

The artist’s first major clash with the Chinese Communist Party came when he orchestrated the collection and publication of the names of 4,851 children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Their deaths were said to be a direct result of corruption and unsafe construction of school buildings.

Ai’s arrest on tax evasion charges in April 2011 at Beijing airport where he was about to board a flight to Hong Kong led to an outpouring of international condemnation. His mother, Gao Ying, was prominent in her son’s release, at one point describing Chinese officials as “creepy, crooked, evil” despite the danger to her own freedom.

Ai, who was speaking to Lord Patten at Asia House in central London, where he was one of five recipients of the Praemium Imperiale award, which includes £100,000 to each winner, said he was not clear in his mind whether his struggles for freedom was “deserved”.

He said: “I remember one person from the security office who interrogated me, before I was released, he said: ‘You always ask for freedom. For that freedom, you might end up spending years in jail just for asking for it.” He is very honest, very honest and has no answer. He just says think about it, if it’s worth it. I can’t say it’s worth it.”

Ai is curating an exhibition of art by inmates in UK prisons, which will open at the Southbank Center on 27 October. Ai said the projects to be presented by people who had “served time”, including at HMP Wormwood Scrubs, were “truly impressive”. He added: “I have seen many masterpieces.”

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