INTERVIEW - Ai Weiwei swaps Germany for Britain, blasts Europe over refugees

by Adela Suliman | @adela_suliman | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 22 August 2019 15:26 GMT

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei gestures during a news conference for his exhibition "Restablecer Memorias" displayed at the University Museum of Contemporary Art (MUAC) in Mexico City, Mexico, April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

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The Chinese artist is swapping his adopted home of Berlin for Britain, saying German society had become intolerant of refugees

By Adela Suliman

LONDON, Aug 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei is swapping his adopted home of Berlin for Britain, saying German society had become intolerant of refugees and he felt like a man without a home.

In an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the artist lambasted Europe for turning its back on refugees, and for kowtowing to China for economic gain.

"Europe was a civilised, modern society which was supposed to uphold humanism, democracy, freedom, and human rights," he said. "Europe may no longer remain Europe beyond geography."

Germany took in more than a million refugees after a crisis that peaked in 2015, with war and poverty prompting a mass exodus from the Middle East and beyond.

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei speaks to migrants as he visits a makeshift camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, near the village of Idomeni, Greece, March 9, 2016. Ai is in Greece to shoot a documentary. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Populist politicians have since tapped into Western anxiety, prompting many European voters to fear their benefits, way of life and jobs had been sacrificed to an influx of ingrates.

"Europeans should not have the privilege to feel any moral superiority," Ai said by email.

"Asking for gratitude from the most desperately struggling, those afflicted by violence and poverty, makes me sick."

Ai has long campaigned for refugees and migrants and has taken up their plight in much of his art work.

But Ai said he now felt sidelined in Germany, and his assistant confirmed the artist would move with his girlfriend and 10-year-old son to England's university city of Cambridge, keeping a studio in Berlin.

Ai moved to Germany in 2015, and said a better life never happened for many immigrants, with low pay and abuse rife.

"Most of the unfortunate and chaotic situations were either created by social injustice resulting from colonial history, or unfair exploitation due to globalisation and rampant capitalism."

Britain he said, was "mired in a swamp" over its 2016 decision to leave the European Union and turn inward.

"The UK has a deep problem. They seem to have lost courage and vision in this fast-changing world," he said.

Concern about immigration was a major reason why Britons backed Brexit in the June 2016 referendum, and net immigration has since sunk to its lowest level since 2013, official figures show.

The artist - who has long been critical of China - also chided Britain for failing the protesters who are out in force in Hong Kong, a former colony.

Artists Ai Wei Wei and Anish Kapoor (R) carry blankets to symbolize the plight of refugees, as they walk through central London, September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls


Ai said he initially chose Germany after leaving China as it had worked so hard for his freedom, but now felt that Germany had changed and he was once again an exile.

"Today, due to the political conditions in China, I have again been forced out," he said, accusing Europe of pandering to Beijing on human rights so as to win more business.

As for Germany, third-generation Turkish and Vietnamese people occupied the "lowest paid jobs" and sat outside society, while newcomers were struggling to win the right to work.

"Many have no hope for a reasonable European life, meaning the right to work, or the possibility of pursuing an education, or simply to have an equal opportunity," he said.

"Those things seem out of reach for many."

Workers bulid up an instalation by Chinese artist and free-speech advocate Ai Weiwei with life jackets left by migrants on Greek beaches on columns at the Schauspielhaus concert hall during the 66th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany February 13, 2016.

Germany spent a record 23 billion euros ($25 billion) last year on integrating refugees and fighting the root causes of migration abroad, according to the government.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly defended her decision to open Germany to refugees, but has vowed to prevent a repeat mass migration by tackling root causes.

Germany defended its integration policy, saying it offered assistance, language skills and employment to incomers.

"The integration of migrants into Germany's society is a topic of great political importance for Germany," said a spokesman for the Interior Ministry by email.

He said the government was "aware of the considerable need for further action".

(Reporting by Adela Suliman; editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit for more stories.)

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