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05 December 2022

COVID -19 digital surveillance in China is pervasive, says Chinese artist Ai Weiwei

In his keynote speech at the closing reception of China Week at King’s, Ai Weiwei shared his reflections on digital surveillance and freedom of expression.

Ai Weiwei

No system of surveillance in human history has been as thorough as the health code developed by China to deal with COVID-19, exiled Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei told a recent event at King’s.

China has recently seen a wave of citizens protests over COVID-19 restrictions amid the risk of surveillance and crackdowns by the authorities.

Speaking during the closing reception of China Week at King’s Lau China Institute, which took place from October 17-21 this year, Ai Weiwei said that freedom of expression was a "necessary foundation and essential element of a healthy society" since it allows individuals to express their true inner feelings. But, he added, such freedom of expression poses a challenge to the legitimacy of regimes, both authoritarian and democratic, who use surveillance to restrict this freedom.

In his pre-recorded message at the event, Ai Weiwei highlighted the increased surveillance of citizens in China after the COVID-19 outbreak. “[T]he Chinese government has monitored the movement of every Chinese through health cards in the name of protection of people’s lives. The health cards can reflect every communication and discussion an individual has with the community and other people, his or her consumption, class status and purchases, and even where he or she spends every penny...”

Indeed, no system of surveillance and no monarch or political power in human history has so far been as thorough in its capacity of surveillance as the health code developed by China. It can be said that no one can escape from the surveillance system in China.

Ai Wewei, artist and activist

However, Ai Weiwei stressed that pervasive digital surveillance is not a phenomenon limited to China. Rather, it is global and widespread even within democratic Western societies.

[T]he development and transmission of digital technology and new digital media, concomitant with the dissemination of lies and false information, provide authoritarian regimes and societies as well as corporations with authoritarian culture with the opportunity to thoroughly violate individual interest.

Ai Wewei, artist and activist

Watch the video

Virtual address: Ai Weiwei – ‘Freedom of Speech and Surveillance’

Ai Weiwei (b. 1957, Beijing, China) leads a diverse and prolific practice that encompasses sculptural installation, filmmaking, photography, ceramics, painting, writing and social media. A conceptual artist who fuses traditional craftsmanship and his Chinese heritage, Ai Weiwei moves freely between a variety of formal languages to reflect on the contemporary geopolitical and sociopolitical condition. Ai Weiwei’s work and life regularly interact and inform one another, often extending to his activism and advocacy for international human rights.