Ai Weiwei in 2015. The artist expressed support to UCU strikers at Sidgwick Site this morningAlfred Weidinger, CC BY 2.0

Cambridge staff taking part in the current UCU strike received a surprise celebrity endorsement this morning when artist and activist Ai Weiwei visited the picket line.

Dr Nicholas Guyatt, a Reader in North American History, wrote initially on Twitter: “a bloke comes up to us and says wryly that he supports us but we need to be more like Hong Kong protesters”, before Ai proceeded to reveal his identity.

Ai then took a selfie on the picket with Guyatt and Dr Adam Branch, a Reader in International Politics. He later tweeted a heart emoji to Guyatt, and wrote that he should aim “much higher”.

This morning was the first of eight days of the University and Colleges Union strikes. Striking staff have established picket lines across all University sites. Ai was spotted at the picket line at the Sidgwick Avenue entrance to the Sidgwick Site.

Speaking to Varsity, Guyatt said that Ai “wandered to our picket on Sidgwick Avenue, not far from the Buttery”, before starting up a conversation.

“He probably spent fifteen or twenty minutes with us, not revealing who he was, but then I asked him about his hat (which was tied to an exhibition he’d done a few years back) and he identified himself. When we’d picked up our jaws from the floor, we chatted a bit more and eventually he moved to the larger picket further down Sidgwick Avenue.”

Ai was curious about why UCU members were striking, and “got very excited at the news that we were striking to protest the cuts to our salary and pensions, and to fight back against casualisation, precarious employment and gender/race disparities in academia”, said Guyatt.

Speaking of Ai’s visit, Guyatt said: “It was awesome! He seemed like a really lovely bloke. It was also inspiring to be reminded that solidarity begins with students and members of the public here in Cambridge and the UK, but that it extends to those fighting for employment rights, equality and justice everywhere.”

Dr. Adam Branch, Reader in International Politics, who was also at the Sidgwick picket, told Varsity that Ai’s visit “was entirely impromptu”. Dr Branch explained that “he was extremely supportive of the strike and very interested in the substance of the Union’s demands, and so we encouraged him to come back and join the picket line, since we’ll be there all week.”

Ai made headlines earlier this year when he moved to Cambridge after several years in Berlin, where he runs a studio. He left China for Germany in 2015 when authorities returned his passport and guaranteed the right to re-entry.


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Ai is considered one of the world’s most famous artists, known for large-scale visual installations. His work has included a Tate Modern exhibition of millions of handmade porcelain ‘sunflower seeds’, and a documentary called Human Flow in 2017 about the refugee crisis. He has been a vocal critic of the Chinese government and launched a ‘citizen’s enquiry’ on student victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, as well as other activities in support of dissidents.

He was arrested in a Beijing airport in April 2011 for alleged ‘economic crimes’ and detained for three months.

UCU members, including academics and academic-related staff, are on strike at 60 institutions across the UK, protesting living and working conditions in universities – including salary depression, casualisation and a gender pay gap – as well as a recent increase in annual employee contributions to their pension schemes, and longer-term issues with staff pensions.