It was supposed to be a symbol of China’s new openness.
The National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, was the centerpiece of the Olympic venues built for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. The saddle-shaped structure got its nickname from the latticework of twisting steel that wraps around it, lights glowing from inside at night.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who helped design the stadium, said it was conceived in the spirit of democracy and freedom.
“Its balance and willingness to expose itself corresponded with the political forms that I wanted to see emerge in China,” he wrote in his memoir, “1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows,” published in 2021. “The Olympics would serve as an open inspection of a once mysterious and closed society.”
Like the Bird’s Nest itself, the 2008 Olympics were seen by some inside the country and around the world as a sign that China’s astonishing economic growth would be followed by democratic development. But as Beijing hosts the Olympics for a second time, the Chinese Communist Party appears more confident than ever in its authoritarian rule, and Ai, one of China’s most famous dissidents, is living in exile.
Ahead of the opening ceremony, Ai, who has distanced himself from his work on the Bird’s Nest, said he had “no feelings” about it being used again for the 2022 Winter Games.
“We produced a product. How it would be used afterwards is not up to us,” he told NBC News in an email interview from Portugal. “They can do whatever they want with it.”
The Games kicked off on Feb. 4 with a snowflake-themed show that ended with two Chinese athletes delivering the Olympic flame to open the event, one of whom was Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a Uyghur cross-country skier.
The Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghurs has been described by the United States and others as genocide, contributing to a diplomatic boycott of the Games by the US and several other countries. Beijing has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of the largely Muslim minority.
Ai, 64 — whose father, poet Ai Qing, was banned from writing — was already a social and political critic when he and the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron were tasked with designing the Bird’s Nest.
But he became even more vocal in the months leading up to the 2008 Olympics, as an earthquake in Sichuan province killed tens of thousands of people. Ai advocated for families whose children died when their schools collapsed, accusing the government of negligence and corruption. When the Summer Olympics began Aug. 8 with an opening ceremony in the stadium he designed, Ai was not in attendance.
In the years after the Olympics, Ai’s troubles with the Chinese authorities mounted. He said he was illegally detained for almost three months in 2011, while a company associated with him, Beijing Fake Cultural Development, was accused of tax evasion based on what he described as “fabricated evidence.” He has denied the allegations and said the aim was to smear him. Neither he nor the company has been officially charged, he said.
Ai’s detention had nothing to do with human rights or freedom of speech but because he was being investigated for suspected economic crimes, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Hong Lei, said at the time, according to state-backed tabloid Global Times.
“China is a country that upholds the principle of law, and the country will act in accordance with the law,” Hong said.
Later that year, state media reported that Ai had been released on bail.
His passport was only returned in 2015, after which he left for Europe. He now divides his time between Lisbon, Portugal; Cambridge, England; and Berlin, among other places.
Through his art he continues to critical society in China, but also all over the world: His work has tackled everything from the refugee crisis in Europe to out-of-work elephants in Myanmar.
He also raised eyebrows after the 2020 US election when he shared social media posts supporting President Donald Trump’s right to contest the electoral result.
In an email, Ai said he had read and retweeted a variety of opinions and that “they all have reasons for their expression.”
“For someone coming from China, if the US cannot allow different voices, it is no different from China,” he said.
It is not just Ai’s life that has changed significantly since 2008. Much has changed geopolitically, too.
Ai said China used the 2008 Games to showcase its achievements under Communist Party rule, but now he believes Beijing has a new ambition: to form a new world order.
“China thinks that they are going to play a leading role in this new order and replace the US’s dominance of the previous 50 years,” he said. “This ambition is very obvious.”
The tension is reflected in the diplomatic boycott of the Games, which China’s mission to the United Nations dismissed as a “self-directed political farce.”
“Today, because of China’s rapid development, Western democracy encounters a philosophical and historical crisis, and the relationship between China and the West has changed fundamentally,” Ai said. “The original power mechanism and world balance has been disrupted because of the rise of China.”