by Joëlle Garrus

China’s coronavirus response has been both hugely efficient and chillingly inhumane, says artist and activist Ai Weiwei after releasing a documentary about the world’s first virus lockdown in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Ai, a dissident who left China five years ago, directed and produced the film “Coronation” from Europe, where he now lives, using footage shot often in secret by dozens of volunteers in hospitals, homes and quarantine zones during the city’s lockdown early this year.

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Chinese artist Ai Weiwei File photo: John MacDougall/AFP.

“Undoubtedly, China has controlled this most devastating pandemic with unbelievable efficiency,” he told AFP.

“Compared to what has happened in the US, France, Brazil, or India, we can see China has managed to control the situation,” he said.

But, he said, “you must go deeper and also ask what kind of societies they are and what kind of sacrifices they have made to deal with a crisis like this”.

The coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan in December and has since killed more than 946,000 people across the world, according to official statistics.

Ai said he doubted that virus data released by China, which has reported just over 4,600 deaths to date, was accurate.

Nor was it known how many people had been “jailed or detained for speaking out” against the official line in this “opaque, authoritarian, military-style society, under the control of one person’s will,” he said.

‘Urgency and necessity’

Ai chronicles the massive means deployed by China to fight the virus outbreak, its strict rules and resulting human tragedies in captivating scenes.

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Citizens robbed of their humanity. Patients who can’t leave hospital despite apparently being cured. A worker who was hired to help build a hospital and who is not allowed home, so he lives penniless in the street. Families deprived of last rites for their loved ones.

Ai said he felt both “the urgency and necessity of such a film.”

“If I did not do it then it would be completely over,” he said. “People would not care or would easily forget and state propaganda would dominate the situation.”

Ai Weiwei also has some angry words for Europe, whose leaders, in their dealings with China, “have put short-term profit ahead of principles,” he said.

“I have not seen any European states taking substantial action in dealing with situations such as the democratic uprising in Hong Kong or the re-education camps in Xinjiang,” he said.

“The only thing they have expressed are their ‘concerns,’ but to use human rights as a bargaining chip for economic gain is so pitiful, the lowest act imaginable in the human struggle of our time,” he said.

Ai said he submitted the documentary to film festivals in Venice, Toronto and New York but was turned down.

“If you have seen what the festivals promote, you can clearly see China’s influence,” he said.

Netflix and Amazon, he said, also rejected the film, which can be seen on on-demand streaming platforms including Alamo and Vimeo.

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