Dissident artist Weiwei says unrest in China won’t upset the regime

MONTEMOR-O-NOVO, Portugal — Dissident Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is encouraged by the recent public protests in China over the authorities’ strict policy against COVID-19, but does not believe they will bring about any significant political change.

“I don’t think that’s possible,” he told The Associated Press in an interview at his home in Portugal.

The recent riots in several Chinese cities that have challenged Beijing’s authority, even going so far as to demand the resignation of President Xi Jinping in what have been the boldest protests in decades, is “a big problem,” Ai acknowledges. But it’s unlikely to go any further, she says.

Challenges to Chinese Communist Party rule are routinely removed with whatever degree of brutality is necessary. Ai points to, for example, how Beijing cracked down on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement two years ago.

In his opinion, some “realistic thinking” is required.

“It’s all about control… to ensure that the whole nation will follow (Xi’s) lead,” the 65-year-old said in the interview on Tuesday at his country house about 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the east. from Lisbon, the Portuguese capital. .

His 2020 documentary “Coronation,” about the lockdown in Wuhan, China, during the COVID-19 outbreak, illustrated the country’s ruthlessly efficient and brutal official response to the pandemic.

The Chinese government’s “zero COVID” policy included tough measures that Ai said kept some people confined to their apartments for 100 days straight.

Three grueling years of lockdowns and other harsh restrictions, coupled with Xi’s removal of civil liberties, put “tremendous pressure” on Chinese society, Ai says.

The balloon burst on November 25, after at least 10 people were killed in a fire at an apartment building in northwest China. Although officials denied suggestions that firefighters or victims were blocked by locked doors or other virus checks, the disaster became a focus of public frustration.

Ai sees an inevitability in the public’s exasperation and is pleased by the questions he has raised. “Of course, they start to question the leadership and the social structure, the political structure,” she said.

In recent weeks, Beijing has relaxed some measures, announcing a series of measures on Wednesday reversing some of its toughest pandemic restrictions in an apparent nod to public frustration.

However, Ai cautions that the relatively small protests, some of which have involved only individuals or neighborhoods, should not be exaggerated in a country with a population of 1.4 billion people. And he remembers that the Chinese Communist Party has about 100 million members, all loyal to the regime.

Although he “doesn’t have any hope” of significant change in China in the foreseeable future, Ai sees encouraging signs in the protests. They can be, she says, baby steps toward a more distant goal.

“What (is) clear is that the new generation of China’s youth, students or young workers, are starting to get more clear about what kind of government China is and maybe also (demanding) political change,” he said. “But that would take a long time.”

He is also pessimistic about the muted international response to the clamor for change by some Chinese, seeing foreign governments as more interested in economic relations with Beijing than human rights issues.

Long an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, Ai was detained by authorities for nearly three months in 2011. He has lived in exile since 2015, most recently in the southern Portuguese countryside, where he says he has now settled.

He is building a 3,000-square-meter (32,000-square-foot) studio on his land, overlooking the ruined 13th-century castle of Montemor-o-Novo.

On Saturday, in a show of support for the Chinese protesters, Ai will appear at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park. She will hand out blank sheets of paper, which have been a symbol of opposition to Beijing’s censorship, signed in invisible ink.

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