Ai Weiwei on China, free speech – and a message for London

Ai Weiwei on China, free speech – and a message for London thumbnail

Ai Weiwei, one of the world’s leading visual artists, has spoken of his shock and sorrow at the tone of the Chinese public’s reaction to Donald Trump’s illness.

“People were just laughing and celebrating on social media,” he said on Saturday. “The attitude was, ‘You lose, Trump!’ It is so sad that a nation has been brainwashed to that degree. They take the relationship with America so personally, and yet they have no understanding left about common human feeling. That is what an authoritarian regime can do by limiting the information the public get: brainwash people so they do not feel that way any more.”

The Chinese dissident artist and activist was hounded by the state in his home country for his belief in free speech and now lives in the UK, in Cambridge. He said he hoped the impact of the virus might serve as a “signal” to the outside world.

“China can even see itself as some sort of winner now in the pandemic, particularly with what has happened to President Trump,” said the 63-year-old artist, citing the country’s relatively low death rates and its swift return to economic growth.

Arrested on flimsy charges in 2011, Ai left China once his passport was eventually returned to him, four years later. He set up a studio in Germany but moved his family to England last year because he felt unhappy about Germany’s conciliatory attitude to China, with which it has strong commercial ties.

The attraction of low-wage labour and imported goods, coupled with the big markets in China for German Volkswagen and BMW cars, has distorted political judgment, he argues. “Germany is now like China’s 33rd province. It is more than a partner. It has not spoken out on issues such as Taiwan, or the constitution. There is no higher moral principle and that is a mistake.”

Controversially, the artist has repeatedly compared German attitudes to the certainties and ambitions that were prevalent during the Nazi era. But speaking this weekend, Ai said that China’s international strategy remained much more dangerous. “The idea of dominating the world is much bigger there, although it does not involve firing a single bullet. It has clearly been the aim since the 1950s and Chairman Mao.”

Ai Weiwei’s work is projected on to a screen at Piccadilly Circus. Photograph: Jason Hawkes

For his latest project, Ai has taken over the large display screen in Piccadilly Circus, central London, with a series of images from his artworks and political films that will run for the rest of the month. The works scheduled for the first three days of this week will focus on his responses to the terrible toll of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province.

Ai’s “citizens’ investigation” into the state corruption that led to the deaths of many students in badly constructed schools has given him strong views on the way that governments respond to disasters. On Tuesday the names of Sichuan’s young victims will be projected, accompanied by his quote: “If you seek to understand your motherland, you are already on the road to becoming a criminal.”

The artist hopes that pedestrians passing through Piccadilly Circus will take in some of his images this month, although he believes people have generally become inured to the impact of pictures.

“We are so flooded with images now. There is so much information coming at people, many of them shocking images, that people don’t feel much emotion any more,” he said.

Ai said he does not believe the pause in the pace of modern life caused by the pandemic has helped with this problem of overstimulation: “People have lost their sensitivity and their aesthetic judgment, and so we will not learn anything meaningful from this pandemic, which is pretty sad.”

During lockdown Ai made a film about Wuhan, where the Covid-19 outbreak began, called Coronation, which is available on Vimeo. He also produced 10,000 printed masks and raised more than £1m for the organisations Human Rights Watch, Refugees International and Médecins Sans Frontières. He is now planning an exhibition in Cambridge.