The Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has sparked outcry for posting a video that appears to cast him as a vaccine sceptic. In a video Ai reposted on Instagram, a group of men dance to the drums and accordion on a hilltop, with the caption: “Me and my friends living off the grid after refusing the vaccine.”
However, Ai tells The Art Newspaper it is a civil liberty issue. He says: "For or against the vaccine should be individuals' autonomous decision, made for themselves and according to their social interaction, so society does not have the right to make vaccine compulsory. I had vaccines myself but I can completely identify myself with those who do not want to get vaccinated. If individuals are forced to be vaccinated through social pressure and public opinion, it will be a very dangerous social tendency."
He continues: "Regardless of the type of society, individuals are entitled to accurate information and then they can voluntarily collaborate with the government or not. This decision should belong to individuals."
Ai has captioned the video: “#RunForOurRights #treadmill In defence of freedom of press and human rights”, framing it as part of a social media campaign he launched in December defending the freedom of press and in support of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, who is facing extradition to the US on espionage charges. In 2010, WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of leaked files relating to the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ai kicked off that campaign by posting a video of him running on a treadmill that Assange gave the artist in 2016. It has prompted an outpouring of support, with hundreds of videos created around the world of people running in support of human rights, which Ai has reposted on his Instagram page.
However, Ai’s latest video has sparked backlash from his followers. “Did aiww get hacked by anti-vaxxers?” questions one in the comments section. “The vaccine is how we get our lives back without sacrificing half of our community, that’s actual human rights. Your art has always given a voice to vulnerable communities, what about the communities vulnerable to Covid 19?” says another. “This is not human right [sic], this is human responsibility!” someone else points out.
Nonetheless, some have posted in support of Ai’s stance. “Thank you for speaking up—even if it’s differently than those who follow you. It’s not just about the vaccine. It’s about the mandates,” says one follower. “Controversial and freedom loving as always,” says another.
China has operated a vigorous vaccination rollout, with the government calling on the tens of millions of people who work at state-owned enterprises, and the roughly 90 million Communist Party members, to encourage the drive. In some areas, local officials have pushed for mandatory vaccines. For example, residents in Wanning in the southern province of Hainan have been told they will be blacklisted from receiving government benefits or using public transport if they fail to get vaccinated.
Countries that have introduced mandatory Covid-19 vaccines for all or parts of their populations and workforces include Austria, Italy, Greece, France, Germany, Croatia, Ecuador, Fiji, Oman, Turkey, the US, New Zealand, Philippines and Indonesia.