Chinese artist Ai Weiwei says COVID protests will not shake government

By Catarina Demony

MONTEMOR-O-NOVO, Portugal (Reuters) - From his Portuguese home, Ai Weiwei, the high-profile Chinese dissident whose art has often criticized Beijing's policies, said the recent wave of protests would not shake Xi Jinping's government because the police would simply crush them into silence.

Protesters have taken to the streets of Shanghai, Beijing and other cities in recent days to demonstrate against COVID-19 measures and restrictions on freedom, a show of civil disobedience that is unprecedented since leader Xi assumed power.

Nearly three years into the pandemic, China says its policies are not geared toward having zero cases at all times but are about "dynamically" taking action when cases surface.

Sitting in his garden, Ai said the protests were not likely to carry on - not just because security forces would quash those speaking out but also because demonstrators themselves lacked organisation and leadership.

"There's no clear political agenda so it's very easy to just arrest them and move on," Ai told Reuters on Monday, adding there were more "demands" in 1989 when a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

"Even if something happens (on) the Hong Kong scale or 1989 scale it (still) won't shake the government," he added.

Asked who could lead the protest movement, Ai, who spent 81 days in detention in China in 2011, said nobody could because the country does not have a "political environment".

"For 70 years, they cleaned out any people, intellectual or media who can raise any question."

Although Ai said protests were not likely to have an impact on the government, he said China's ruling Community Party was "very worried about revolutions" and would do "everything to prevent this from happening", from internet censorship to using police force.

The protests in China were triggered by a fire in the Xinjiang region last week that killed 10 people who were trapped in their apartments. Protesters said lockdown measures were partly to blame, though officials denied that.

Protests have spread to various cities around the world in a show of solidarity. On Monday evening, dozens of protesters gathered in Hong Kong's Central business district, the scene of anti-government demonstrations in 2019.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson told a regular briefing on Monday that China was not aware of any protests abroad calling for an end to its COVID policy.

The United States and other Western nations have backed the right of people to peacefully protest in China, but Ai pointed a finger at them for prioritising their own economic agenda instead of human rights.

"When dealing with China, I think (for) every government the priority is to...gain some economic leverage," he said. "You cannot blame them because they also want to survive, but by doing that, they lose their credibility of defending the free world or defending democracy.

"That is a pity."

(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)