"We may never know what truly happened”—the artist exposes the Chinese government’s COVID coverup and the human toll of authoritarianism

What would soon be known to the world was being kept secret in China: a novel coronavirus was burgeoning in the city of Wuhan, with the first case of coronavirus confirmed in December 2019. The advancing pestilence would soon come to spread across the globe, while the Chinese Communist Party denied the reality of the epidemic—fudging the figures, denying transmission realities. As the Chinese government moved to stifle information-sharing, artist and activist Ai Weiwei began working remotely from Berlin on a documentary to chronicle the daily lives of citizens of Wuhan—laypeople, doctors, hospital workers—as they grappled with life under lockdown. Document speaks to Ai Weiwei about the film, Coronation.

Alex Hodor-Lee: How difficult was it getting access to film in hospitals and to conduct interviews with different subjects? What was the process of documenting this during a sensitive time within Communist China?

Ai Weiwei: Making a documentary film at this level is almost as difficult as when American special forces went into Pakistan to kill Bin Laden. First, Wuhan is a city completely sealed off—nobody was to come in or out. To make a documentary film was difficult since nothing was supposed to be documented. Two activists tried to provide some information to the public and they have been put away. No one knows where they are. There is no information about where they have been locked up. No one even asks the question of where they are. So to film in these most restrictive areas takes tremendous communication and skill. We were not only giving direction on what to film, but also trying to secretly communicate and trying to secure the material that was already filmed. It was very intensive work.

Alex: Is this a narrative about the efficiency or inefficiency of an authoritarian regime’s approach to handling a pandemic?

Weiwei: The film clearly tells how efficient an authoritarian power can be. They can organize medical professionals, infrastructure, and even human behavior in every respect—a gas station worker reporting travelers to the police, using surveillance cameras to watch and direct the doctors in dressing and undressing PPE, the highest levels of the city motivated to construct temporary field hospitals within days. 

Contrast this with how efficiently they seized information and prevented any from leaking out. They are in total control. It is not like the New York Times report that said these were local government mistakes. Every nerve connects to the brain and in this body that is the central government. They knew every detail of the pandemic’s development from the very beginning. China is the most efficient government mankind has ever created, with over 90 million Communist Party members all acting as one whole. There is nothing to compare to that kind of discipline, policy, and crowd control in modern society—not the US or Europe.

But what is the inefficiency of that state? Because there is such a titanic structure to control a human’s mind and activities, the result is an entire society lacking true will, passion, and imagination. The people are not motivated by intuition or goodwill, but in accordance with the party’s direction and policy. This kind of society can never truly have full humanity, but rather a kind of modern slavery which poses a danger to the civilized world.

“China is the most efficient government mankind has ever created, with over 90 million Communist Party members all acting as one whole.”

Alex: What lessons can Western viewers exact from the documentary?

Weiwei: What the audience in the West, or non-Chinese world, should ask is: With China developing so rapidly, how will this affect human society in both the East and the West? What kind of development are we heading toward? What kind of future is there under authoritarianism and what are the potential dangers we will face?

Alex: Has the pandemic exposed generational rifts and attitudes in China? Do you think people have more faith in the Communist Party or less based on the state’s handling of COVID?

Weiwei: In China, the people’s true emotion cannot be measured because they have never had full access to information. Without correct information, the people are brainwashed and their decisions often cannot be seen as rational; they are incapable of making the right choices or decisions.

“We may never know what truly happened in China.”

Alex: China has done a much better job handling the pandemic than the US—how can we balance censorship, surveillance, and public health and safety?

Weiwei: I would not say China has done a better job than any other nation, even if they limited the number of infections and deaths. The real number has not been revealed to the public. We may never know what truly happened in China. Even if we accept the provided numbers as fact, China has sacrificed everyone’s human rights to achieve certain numbers. Personal freedom simply does not exist in this society. China’s numbers are low, but the cost is much higher than anywhere else.

Coronation is now available in the US at Alamo Drafthouse On Demand and on Vimeo On Demand worldwide.