Ai Weiwei, activism, politics

Ai Weiwei and the Art of Activism

12 minutes to read
Ghyli Kirshner

Whether pictures of his middle finger in front of national buildings or a recreation of a drowned refugee, Ai Weiwei is not afraid to shock and confront people with his art works. His art works are mostly related to political issues and events. It so happened that the state of China is not happy with his work. But what actually is Ai Weiwei’s goal with his work? Is it just to be controversial, or does he really have a political agenda? Is China putting him behind bars for nothing? In this article, I am going to try to find out what his actual message is, and how he puts that forward.

Ai Weiwei, the Sichuan earthquake and the networked social movement

Ai Weiwei. Weiwei is a conceptual artist and activist, born in China. As the son of the Chinese poet Ai Quing, who was accused in the Anti-Rightist movement, Ai Weiwei and his family were sent off to live in Shihezi. Sixteen years later they returned to Beijing. In 1981, Ai Weiwei moved to the US to study abroad. After studying and working as an artist in the US for twelve years, he returned to live in China again.

Living in China has not been easy for Ai Weiwei. The Chinese government has tried to shut Ai Weiwei down several times by detaining him or putting him under house arrest, meaning he was not allowed to leave Beijing for several years. But why does the Chinese government think this is necessary?

It all started in 2008 when the Sichuan earthquake happened. More than 60.000 people lost their lives, among them were many children at schools or universities due to poorly built school buildings. However, the Chinese government censored all information and details concerning the earthquake.

Ai Weiwei’s goal was to find out how many students lost their lives and posted on his blog: ‘This is my question: Where are those lives?’ What followed was a huge amount of followers on his blog. A citizen investigation team was created to try and find these lost lives. However, many people from the investigation team were arrested and information was deleted.

Almost a year after the team had collected over 5000 names, the blog was shut down by the government as too many people were following the investigation. After the blog was shut down, Ai Weiwei started tweeting to try andcontinue his investigation into the earthquake. He also began posting the names of the deceased children on their birthdays and posting recordings of people reading the names of the lost children on his Twitter account (Weiwei, 2018).

Ai Weiwei’s blog and Twitter account were used to bring people together and as Ai Weiwei (2012) said: ‘We are always trying to think of a way to get everyone involved’ (Allen, 2012). Social media tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, are tools that are ‘making our lives easier; making our communication faster and faster, that is, invariably better: ‘as more people adopt simple communication, the speed of group actions also increases (Shirky, 2008: 161)’, (Gerbaudo, 2012).

We also see this in the creation of the citizen investigation team, which started online. We can refer to this as a networked social movement whose birth is ‘usually triggered by a spark of indignation either related to a specific event or to peak of disgust with the actions of rulers. In all cases they are originated by a call to action from the space of flows that aims to create an instant community of insurgent practice in the space of places’ (Castells, 2013).

Here, the event of the earthquake and the poor government handling triggered the formation of this movement. This movement did not only stay online but was directed to come together in public space and investigate the Sichuan earthquake. We can refer to this creation offline as choreography of assembly. A term that Gerbaudo (2012) describes as a process of ‘symbolic construction of public space, which revolves around an emotional ‘scene-setting’ and ‘scripting’ of participants’ physical assembling.’ New media, here Ai Weiwei’s blog and Twitter, and offline networks are used here to find out the truth about the earthquake and make its way around the Chinese government, who refused to share any details.

As Castells would argue that networked social movements are leaderless, Gerbaudo argues differently. Although the leadership of networked social movements may not always be obviously visible, as social media do facilitate complex and ‘soft’ forms of leadership, there is always someone constructing the public assembly.

In this case that is Ai Weiwei, who instructed participants to search for lost lives. However, his leadership may have become more visible when he also used a large exhibition in 2009 to commemorate the children. He covered the façade of Munich’s Haus der Kunst with 9000 backpacks for a piece called Remembering. By exhibiting this, he made clear that it is unacceptable for the Chinese government to censor information about such a tragic event.

Haus der Kunst covered with 9000 backpacks for Remembering

Ai Weiwei's message on social media

Censorship and human rights violations are the main subjects of Ai Weiwei's critiques of the Chinese government. In June 2009, The Chinese government blocked access to Twitter in anticipation of the anniversary of the Tiananman Square Massacre. However Ai Weiwei used a VPN to get around China’s Great Firewall and so he was able to keep on sharing his message. But what is Ai Weiwei’s message and how does he put it forward? I will look at some of Ai Weiwei’s art pieces and use of social media.

But first, I will delve deeper into the concept of message in relation to politics. Message can be seen as the total package that a politician puts forward to the public, it is his or her ‘publicly imaginable ‘character’ presented to an electorate, with a biography and a moral profile crafted out of issues rendered of interest in the public sphere’ (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012). It is a specific aura that a person sends out to the people. He forms his image through tackling or taking a stand on certain issues that play an important role in the public sphere. Through the way in which someone gets identified with certain issues, he acquires a political persona (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012). One can be ‘on message’, meaning he constantly communicates a specific aura and in this way keeps in touch with his targeted audience (Silverstein, 2003).

  • ‘publicly imaginable ‘character’ presented to an electorate, with a biography and a moral profile crafted out of issues rendered of interest in the public sphere’ (Lempert & Silverstein, 2011)

When looking at Ai Weiwei’s art pieces, it often is related to political topics. Take for example the recreation of the picture of the drowned Syrian refugee child. This sparked a lot of controversy in the art world and beyond (Shaw, 2017). Or Ai’s famous series Study of Perspective, where he took photographs of his middle finger in front of political buildings, such as Tiananmen Square and the White House. Here we can say that his critique is not limited to the state of China.

These art pieces can be one way to communicate a message. Of course, his social media is another infrastructure where Ai Weiwei produces 'message'. Ai Weiwei started tweeting after his personal blog was shut down. Having almost 365 thousand followers on Twitter and more than 154 thousand tweets, Ai Weiwei remains highly active on Twitter. Although he is now only retweeting other tweets, he used Twitter to heavily criticize the government of China, something China was not able to prevent from happening. As many of his tweets were in Chinese, the Chinese blog Love Ai Weiwei translated many of them (Anonymous, 2011):

 In this country, tyranny deprives not only ordinary people of their rights to life, but also their rights to express their opinions, including the right to question, the right to inquire and the right to know. All the efforts to acquire the rights have been destroyed by the authorities at all costs. People who died of tyranny had no place to be buried. (June 21, 2009 10:17:46)

We shall terminate the totalitarianism in our own hands, and therefore take this honor for granted to avenge generations of our fathers and grandfathers. We will pass on the offspring a brand new reality which is bright, lively and totally different. (August 10, 2009 19:26:06)

From 2009 till 2013, many tweets were like the ones above concerning the state of living in China and the repression of freedom of speech. He addressed his followers to stand up against this repression and the poorly functioning legal system in China, for example in the tragedy of the Sichuan Earthquake discussed earlier. This is something that many people in China do not dare to do. This is also a reason why Ai Weiwei’s activism gets so much attention, since he is one of the few openly criticizing the Chinese government. This stands out in the media which is mostly controlled by the Chinese government. As Blommaert (2011) mentioned, to communicate is ‘to position your message in competition with others in a public sphere that is dominated by the mass media so that it scores, draws attention and gets picked up by that audience.’

In the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), Ai tells in an interview that his blogging and digital activism are having an effect on the government, as young people see what he is talking about and spread the word on other media platforms. He also says that he will not stop doing this, as he does not want to live in a world were truth is constantly being denied, and states that the people need to raise their voices.

In the documentary Ai Weiwei also mentions, in response to T-shirts of him being made, that he is becoming more of a brand. A brand that stands for liberal thinking and individualism, and in contrast with China’s government. Although the Great Firewall of China tries to prevent controversial messages from being posted online, Ai Weiwei tries to inspire others to be digitally active on online platforms (Huval, 2013).

Ai Weiwei is not tweeting himself now anymore but simply retweeting news reports and other people. Examples of retweets are:

A retweet about refugees

A retweet from The Guardian

Retweets about the shutdown in the US

When looking at the last three retweets, we see some contradictions concerning Trump. He is retweeting tweets that are against Trump, but are also in favor of Trump. This is a recurring pattern in Ai Weiwei's Twitter feed, in which it is unclear what Ai's opinion is about a certain matter. It seems like he is just retweeting what is being said and not his opinion.

The tragedy is not only that people have lost their lives. The tragedy is the people who, in very rich nations, have lost their humanity’ (Weiwei & Warsh, 2018).

Ai Weiwei is also active on Instagram. Among other things, he posts a lot videos of people reading parts of his book Humanity. In this book, Ai speaks of human life and the global refugee crisis. In the book, Ai says: ‘The tragedy is not only that people have lost their lives. The tragedy is the people who, in very rich nations, have lost their humanity’ (Weiwei & Warsh, 2018).

Although he uses social media for his activism, the book is a more traditional way of expressing his thoughts and opinions. However, this traditional way of expression is combined with modern tools in these videos. He posts these videos with hashtags like #humanity, #humanrights and #freedomofspeech. In this way, he is able to address a broader audience.

A lot of videos posted with Ai's book Humanity

A Woman reading from Ai's book

Ai Weiwei, social media and activism

Ai Weiwei has long used his social media and fame as a megaphone for his activism. This has not gone unnoticed, as the Chinese government has tried to shut him down several times. He is seen as a dangerous person and an enemy of the Chinese government. In an interview with CBS News, he declares he does not want to bring the Chinese government down, he just wants it to change (Williams, 2017). He tries to do so by making controversial art that raises questions and draws attention. But besides art, social media is most important in carrying out his message. The way in which he does that, unafraid of authority or criticism, is what probably appeals most to people.

When looking at his Twitter account today, we could say that he is not really ‘on message’ anymore. He is not tweeting anymore like he used to do between 2009 and 2013, addressing human rights and freedom of speech, especially concerning China. With retweeting news reports, he might just want to show his followers what is happening in the world but it is not clear if he actually agrees with reports concerning all kind of political happenings.

However, it looks like Ai Weiwei has put more focus on Instagram. With posts about his book Humanity, the focus has shifted from only China to the whole Western world and its refugee crisis. This is also in line with his controversial recreation of the drowned refugee child and his documentary Human Flow (2018), about the refugee crisis. Thus Instagram has been an important platform for Ai Weiwei to carry out his message. With almost 500 thousand followers, Ai’s message reaches a lot of people and he is able to address a broad audience.

With his work and social media activities, Ai Weiwei tries to inspire and encourage people to fight the repression of freedom and create a better world. He is as much a sociopolitical commentator as an artist and in this way he wants to show people that the world needs to change.


Allen, D. (2012). Ai Weiwei and the Art of Protest. The Nation. Retrieved 8 January, 2019. 

Anonymous. (2011). Ai Weiwei’s Top 10 tweets. The Telegraph. Retrieved 9 January, 2019. 

Castells, M. (2013). Communication power. OUP Oxford.

Gerbaudo, P. (2012). Tweets and the streets. Social media and contemporary activism. London: Pluto Press.

Huval, R. (2013). Ai Weiwei sparks social media flames in China. Independent Lens. Retrieved 9 January, 2019.

Lempert, M. & Silverstein, M. (2012). Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Shaw, A. (2017). Ai Weiwei poses as drowned Syrian refugee toddler once again. The Art Newspaper. Retrieved 8 January, 2019.

Silverstein, M. (2003). Talking politics: the substance of style from Abe to" W". Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Weiwei, A. (2018). Ai Weiwei: The Artwork that made me the most dangerous person in China. The Guardian. Retrieved 7 January, 2018. 

Weiwei, A. & Warsh, L. (2018). Humanity. New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Williams, H. (2017). How Chinese artist Ai Weiwei became an enemy of the state. CBS News. Retrieved 9 January, 2019.