Chinese Dissident Artist Ai Weiwei On Masks, Uighurs and Democracy

China’s most famous artist and infamous government critic spills on human rights atrocities in Xinjiang and state attempts to cover up the coronavirus.
July 29, 2020, 11:14am
ai weiwei, dissident artist, china, mask, coronavirus, uighur,xinjiang
Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP

What is it about Ai Weiwei that makes him so dangerous to China’s ruling Communist Party? 

For one, the prolific Beijing-born artist is a symbol of the struggle for human rights in the country. Arrested, imprisoned, tortured and constantly harassed by the authorities for years, it is no secret or surprise that Ai Weiwei opposes the Chinese government, particularly its “oppressive treatment” towards dissident voices, democratic movements and minority groups.

Despite living in exile and remaining censored on the Chinese internet (his name is a banned search term on Sina Weibo), Ai Weiwei continues to perform checks and balances on Xi Jinping and his party through his work. This includes upcoming films about the Hong Kong protest movement and the Wuhan COVID pandemic, as well as ‘MASK’, an art project launched in spring to  address the humanitarian crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. He meticulously created 10,000 face masks with the help of his team, each hand-printed with some of his most iconic art pieces –a defiant middle finger, sunflower seeds and surveillance cameras, a nod to his time spent in Chinese state detention and house arrest. 

VICE News reached out to Ai Weiwei for his thoughts on China’s role in the ongoing health crisis, alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong’s controversial new National Security Law.  

He didn’t mince his words about China’s overseas diplomats in response to Chinese ambassador to the U.K. Liu Xiaoming’s recent uncomfortable public denial of atrocities taking place in Xinjiang. “Asking for [any acknowledgment of] truth from Chinese officials is laughable. You cannot get any truth from well-trained professional liars, whose function is to lie,” he said. “China’s foreign ministry has become so corrupt in terms of facts and truth-seeking. It is simply a self-satisfying propaganda arm.”

But he also thinks that the West is just as much to blame. Read on for more. 

VICE News: What’s the message behind your latest work ‘MASK’ and how it relates to the global coronavirus pandemic? 

Ai Weiwei: Any crisis is a call for artists to act and my message is simple: An artist can always become involved. Most would rather wait for time to pass but one can choose the opportunity to get involved, extend their expression and reach out. That is the moment to test the relevance of their art and whether or not it is connected to the human struggle.

What are your thoughts about face masks? 

During this pandemic crisis, there are a thousands reasons in support of wearing a face mask. A mask protects oneself as well as loved ones and society at large. However, fundamentally speaking, wearing a mask should come as an individual choice - not a government mandate. 

And what about the politicians who choose not to wear them?  

Some politicians wear masks, some don’t. We can’t separate them from the people. So the wearing, or not wearing, of face masks has become a political message, revealing how politicians look at the pandemic and how grounded in reality they are. 

When we talk about the coronavirus, we have to talk about China. What do you think about the Chinese government’s handling of the outbreak that emerged in Wuhan? 

China clearly mishandled the medical information and intentionally tried to block the truth at early stages of the coronavirus outbreak. This crucial period allowed the virus to spread all around the world, these are the facts. What has not been established as a fact is we don’t yet know how the coronavirus came about. Is it from nature? Or is it man-made? Also, how many people have actually become infected within China and what is the true death toll? As one of the largest economic powers in the world, China should realize that without transparency and social trust, power becomes meaningless. A powerful state without those values can only pose a danger to human development.

What do you have to say about China’s global standing and its diplomatic disputes? Is the world finally waking up to its actions? 

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised questions about the long-held, misleading belief in the West that China would become a more liberal state after becoming rich. China has now reached the highest possible economic status but it is still developing. At this rapid rate of development, it will soon overtake the United States and become the biggest economic superpower in the world. With that strategic outlook, the U.S. and the West must rethink the shortcomings of classic capitalism and globalization in competition with China’s state capitalist.

China clearly faces strong obstacles as seen in recent disputes with the U.S. and the West. Business is not going on as usual. Even so, I doubt China will worry or change its behavior. They have been like this for the last 70 years. Only the West has softened and become nervous. China will probably remain the same. I have not seen any crucial tactics employed by the West, their actions have ranged from baffling to threatening. It’s not to say the West has no leverage over China, but Western leaders really need to understand the potential danger of China becoming the most powerful state, instead of continuing to seek short-term political gain for their own agendas and profit-making.

A recent investigation by The New York Times that revealed companies were using Uighur labor through government programs to produce face masks to satisfy global demand. What are your thoughts on this? 

The exploitation of minority rights and prisoner rights is a long-standing practice in China, a state without an independent judicial system or an independent press to report or raise questions on human rights, labor rights, or protections for ethnic or religious minorities. You cannot expect what we consider in the West to be just or fair practices in a modern society. Prisoners in China, especially in Xinjiang, have always been used for forced labor and subjected to prison conditions that are inhumane. There is also broad use of child labor. 

Xinjiang, meaning New Frontier, is not just that for China, but also for Western industries. Many of the top global companies active in China have some production presence in Xinjiang, such as Volkswagen. Most fashion companies working out of China have Xinjiang in its supply chain, a major source of Chinese produced cotton. Uighur rights have long been suppressed but this has only become more extreme in the last decade. Large populations of Uighurs have been sent to re-education camps primarily for brainwashing but also as a source of forced labor. Besides the Chinese regime, the West is the other primary beneficiary of this practice.

What do you think of the National Security Law and Hong Kong’s future? 

The Hong Kong situation reflects the classic struggle of trying to defend freedom and democracy while living under an authoritarian state. It demonstrates how impossible and desperate the struggle can be. China’s so-called National Security Law is a piece of legislation which crushes different ideas and criminalizes the actions of those defending human rights and free speech. This was why the people of Hong Kong struggled so forcefully against encroaching authoritarian rule. During the struggle, China did not give up one inch, choosing instead to forcefully crack down and punish people attempting to protect their essential rights. As a result, Hong Kong will become just another mainland city without any guarantees for human rights or free speech.

How about the ongoing democracy movement, especially young protesters and their fight against powers in Beijing? 

Rarely do we see a demonstration of power as meaningful as what we witnessed with the Hong Kong student protests. They are fighting for ideology. They are fighting for democracy. And they are fighting for freedom against the most untouchable state. So the younger generation must understand that the future demands their involvement, otherwise there can be no meaningful fight against the old system.