Artist and activist Ai Weiwei knows what isolation is like. A frequent subject of government attention for his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government, Ai Weiwei once spent three months in a tiny one room cell in 2011. He has been accused of tax evasion, which is generally seen as punishment for his activism, and he's been under surveillance for years. The artist currently resides in Cambridge, England, shared with CNN the way that self-quarantine felt like his time in jail. "You (feel) disassociated, you're dysfunctioning and you're uncertain about your own future ... you're trying to imagine behaving in relation to others."
Having lived under the eye China's authoritarian government for decades, Ai Weiwei has seen both the positive and negative effects of the government's handling of the pandemic. In an opinion piece for The Art Newspaper, Weiwei has said that the Chinese government's effective measures to lock down the country point to the "effectiveness of authoritarian rules" whereas the slower response of other countries shows "disadvantages and malpractices of free and democratic societies."
However, the Chinese government did suppress information about the pandemic and downplayed the damage that COVID 19 has already caused. China has downplayed disasters before, most notoriously in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed around 90,000 people in western China. At least 5,000 children died in the earthquake, many due to being crushed by poorly constructed school buildings. Ai Weiwei had his teams contacted the parents of the children for an art installation called "Remembering." He arranged 90,000 student backpacks to read the message "All I want is to let the world remember she had been living happily for seven years," a line from a letter written to him by a victim's mother.
Ai Weiwei has said that China needs to control and manipulate information to maintain its authoritarian grip on the country.
"For China, everything is for political use. 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," said Ai.
"A number means nothing to them," he said, adding that there's little recognition of the individuals and "deep souls" making up the death toll. "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."
"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 behavior 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."
Many of the measures that the government is using to track the spread of the virus, like instituting mobile tracking and QR codes that track citizens, is another way for the government to keep control over its people after the crisis ends. "China has 1.4 billion people and one single power. They have to actually maintain this kind of power by knowing everybody -- what's on their mind, and their behavior."