The renowned Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei, subject of the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry being screened Feb. 3, was named a runner-up for TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2011.
In the spring of 2011, Ai Weiwei went missing for 81 days. He was detained in Beijing while attempting to catch a flight to Hong Kong and was held almost entirely incommunicado and interrogated some 50 times, while friends and supporters around the world petitioned for his release. On Nov. 1, 2011, Ai, who says the case against him was politically motivated, was hit with a $2.4 million bill for back taxes and penalties. Two weeks later, he paid a $1.3 million bond with loans from Chinese supporters who contributed online and in person and even tossed cash over the walls of his studio in northeast Beijing.
The son of a revolutionary poet, Ai has grown more outspoken in recent years, expressing his anger at abuses of power and organizing online campaigns. His detention came amid a broad crackdown on activists by the Chinese government meant to stamp out a call for Arab Spring–inspired pro-democracy protests as well as continuing unrest in the Tibetan regions, where 12 people had set themselves on fire to protest Chinese policies.
Wei, who speaks excellent English, sat down on Dec. 12, 2011 with TIME’s Hannah Beech and Austin Ramzy—and a calico cat, one of nearly two dozen cats and dogs at his studio—to discuss his detention, the poetry of Twitter and whether China is immune to the global forces of protest and revolution.
Read the TIME Magazine interview with Ai Weiwei.