Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei discusses U.S. election, human rights in China, and other subjects

Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei weighs in on U.S. election, human rights in China, the refugee crisis and other weighty subjects in a question and answer session at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES (NOVEMBER 2, 2016) (COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS) – Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei visited the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Wednesday (November 2) and discussed a number of issues, including the upcoming U.S. election.

An audience member asked why people in China and Chinese immigrants in the U.S. often support presidential candidate Donald Trump over his rival Hillary Clinton.

“Many of them openly talk about how much they love Trump. I couldn’t understand it,” said Ai.

“Chinese love (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. So they all love the strong leaders,” he added.

Asked by moderator Jerome Cohen how someone from the U.S. should understand the Chinese political situation and how it relates to the upcoming U.S. elections, Ai said, “I think China is as confused as the United States today.”

Ai also compared the looming election between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton to the old American cartoon “Tom and Jerry”, popular in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

“You just have two people there. It’s more like Jerry and Tom.”

Ai is often described as China’s most high-profile artist, dissident and political activist but he rejects those labels, calling himself a “human being” and nothing more.

Ai was unable to leave China for four years after his passport was confiscated at the airport when he was preparing to fly out of the country in April 2011. He was arrested and detained for 81 days for allegedly publishing subversive material on his blog. After he was released into a form of house arrest.

On Wednesday Ai was critical of the leadership in China and its record on human rights. The Communist Party has long railed against Western values, including concepts such as multi-party democracy, judicial independence and universal human rights.

Calls to reject Western thought and values have grown stronger under President Xi Jinping, who has urged more “ideological guidance” at universities and the study of Marxism.

“There is no true knowledge behind what he or some other leaders what they want,” said Ai. “It’s just simply empty words and nobody even knows in China or in the party knows what he or other people are talking about.”

“In China of course you don’t say it clearly. You don’t know what really the what the politician, what they say is really what he means or he really have a some new directions tomorrow. Nobody feels secure. The problem with our society, this kind of society, nobody trusts anybody, and nobody really believes anybody,” said Ai.

China consistently rejects any criticism of its human rights record.

Ai is not shy in dealing with politically sensitive matters in his work. One of the Royal Academy of Art’s huge rooms contains his work “Straight” (2008-12), which comprises 96 tons of rebar concrete reinforcing rods collected from shoddy buildings that collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake of May, 2008, all carefully straightened and aligned on the floor.

On the walls are engraved the names of the thousands of victims.

Since being allowed to leave China Ai has been traveling the world documenting and calling attention to the plight of refugees and migrants.

“Thousands of them are drowned in this ocean, and basically nobody receives them on the other side of land. They are being totally neglected. Even some of them being accepted, but being put in so-called ‘camps’, but I think it’s a detention, exactly like detention,” said Ai.

Ai’s support for refugees is rooted in his own experiences.

After his father was labeled an enemy of the Chinese state, Ai spent much of his childhood in remote corners of the country in forced internal exile with his family.