The artist spoke at John's College in a Fitzwilliam Museum Society-organised eventAndy Miah / Wikimedia Commons

Ai Weiwei, the renowned Chinese artist and political activist, said at an event at St John’s this Wednesday (17/01) that “freedom of speech is under sanction globally - especially in the West, the US and Europe”.

The artist compared the state of free speech today to “70 years ago in the Nazi times, and 60 years ago during China’s Cultural Revolution”. He added: “That’s what is happening here today.”

Ai continued: “When [the] West thinks we have freedom of expression I say that it’s the biggest lie. You don’t have freedom of expression.” He added: “I don’t think the West has freedom of speech.”

At the event organised by the Fitzwilliam Museum Society and Social Canvas, Ai was to discuss the role of art and creativity in social activism. He also discussed freedom of speech, the rise of AI, and the Israel-Palestine War.

On the role of technology in his art, Ai explained that the internet helps him express his opinions in a way he could never have done before due to the censorship of conventional media in China. The artist’s own political activism began on the internet in 2005.

The artist maintained that the “internet has liberated the freedom of expression” in the sense that education is no longer confined to universities and their “brand of education”. He was less optimistic, however, about the state of global free speech, stating: “Freedom of speech is under sanction globally, especially in the West, the US and Europe.”

“I think it’s pretty devastating”, he continued, “I never could imagine someone, because they said something, [being] dismissed from being head of university, or editor of a magazine, or lead to cancelled exhibitions.”

In response, he developed his Ai vs AI project: “If you don’t have freedom of speech, at least you have freedom to ask questions, so I decided to ask questions to AI and let it answer”.

When asked about what role institutions should play in protecting freedom of expression, such as Cambridge, he explained that “universities are responsible for protecting different opinions.”

He considered “universities as a location that should encourage ideas beyond what is happening at the moment.”


Mountain View

Suella Braverman to speak at Union

Ai was also asked about the impact of AI on the future of humanity. He explained that he has “not much excitement for AI”. He fears what impact the immediacy of AI will have for individuals who take years to specialise in knowledge.

“AI will make a lot of people lose their jobs, including professors like you,” he told Assistant Professor Kareem Estefan.

Ai also discussed his recently postponed show following the start of the Israel-Palestine War. He explained that as an artist: “We really have to make a lot of noise by any means necessary to defend human dignity.”

Ai Weiwei was contacted for comment.