Ai Weiwei says China 'will never learn' from coronavirus

Ai Weiwei has criticised China for its alleged efforts to conceal the outbreak of coronavirus, an allegation strongly denied by the government.

The dissident artist said his home country’s sharing of information early on provided a “chance for the virus to spread” and he predicted China would “never learn” from the pandemic.

Speaking to CNN, Ai said China would not function as a state without the “control and manipulation” of information.

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“For China, everything is for political use,” he said. “And they have a clear reason to give the numbers they want to, or to limit or to change or distort the so-called truth.

“A number means nothing to them. In many cases in China, you don’t even get the real names or how many people. They are completely lost because the state wants [to preserve] its own image.”

Ai has previously questioned China’s official death toll accounts: after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which almost 90,000 people are believed to have died, he set up a team to identify its youngest victims by meeting with their parents and recording their names, birth dates and the schools they attended. He turned their stories into a 2009 work of art, titled “Remembering”.

Adding that history is destined to repeat itself, Ai said: “China will never learn. It doesn’t matter what kind of disaster they’re facing. The only thing they learn is how well they use this authoritarian power to manipulate the story. That kind of arrogance and success will lead them to another crisis.

“It’s a pity. It’s obvious they have to change their behaviour and to learn to be more scientific and trust their own people, but simply, there is no trust in China between the leaders and their own people, between people themselves, and between individuals’ understanding of the current situation and [their] own future.”

Ai also believes the virus has only strengthened what he describes as the “police state”, allowing the government to collect data on its citizens through the colour-based “health code” system it designed to track people’s movements and prevent the virus from spreading.

Ai was detained by authorities in China in 2011 on charges of tax fraud, a move widely perceived as a punishment for his political activism. He now lives in Cambridge, in the UK.

The novel coronavirus outbreak is believed to have originated at a wildlife market in Wuhan in China and spread to humans due to their close proximity with wild animals. At the time of writing, the country has reported 4,632 deaths from the illness.