"Fridays for Future" in Berlin : Ai Weiwei: "Every kid engaged is much cooler than me"

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei joins the climate strike in Berlin. He calls for immediate change in economy and ethics – and supports Greta Thunberg. An interview.

The big picture. Ai Weiwei at "Fridays for Future" in Berlin.
The big picture. Ai Weiwei at "Fridays for Future" in Berlin.Foto: Annette Kögel

Visiting "Fridays for Future", where students and pupils are on school strike and demonstrate to bring awareness for immediate steps against climate change - and the threat it brings to the future of the young generation - and existence of the planet itself. Young people from all over Germany demonstrate an the street, close to the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy in Berlin-Mitte.

They follow 16 year old activist Greta Thunberg from Sweden, in Berlin, Luisa Neubauer speaks for the youth initiative, which protests every friday midday. Today in the crowd, isn't that Chinese artist and activist for human rights, Ai Weiwei? Yes, it's him. He says, he will answer some questions, but it should be the day of the youth. So we catch up for longer communication later. How can mankind be motivated to really make steps against carbon gas contribution? How can the world wake up, it is only a few years left, as World Business Council for Sustainable Development warns, to make a change against catastrophy?

Mr. Ai Weiwei, I am astonished and also impressed to see you here with all those young kids demonstrating for their future. Why are you here?

As you said, it’s their future. Unfortunately, we have made them worried. We have made them have to go out onto the street, to speak out, and to become united. To have to be internationally united, that is the most important point. Because global corporations have ruined the planet in such a dramatic manner. It makes everyone worry about the future. I have a son and I brought him here. We have to stop the normal classroom teachings. Let us go and prove that every individual has the power. We have to become united. When I am here, I am very happy. The children here are young, but they understand the importance and they are not pretending like nothing is happening.

She started everything. Greta Thunberg, now 16, has already been striking since half a year in Stockholm, Sweden.
She started everything. Greta Thunberg, now 16, has already been striking since half a year in Stockholm, Sweden.Foto: REUTERS

How can one reach mankind to make a change now?

I think the only important thing is to get the knowledge, to spread the news, and to unite the people. Because eventually this will affect everybody, and nobody can escape. It doesn’t matter what your social status is, or what kind of religion you have, or what country you are in. We are all children of this unique planet. We cannot afford to lose it.

Where you afraid of people poisoning the planet, when you were a young student in China?

I grew up in a communist society. The struggle's in life were quite primitive. In the beginning of the 1960s, China experienced a mass famine lasting three years. The Communist Party had initiated the Great Leap Forward which organized farmers into communes with the goal of quickly industrializing the nation. Each village cut down its trees for fuel and even melted down their cookware in order to reach centrally planned production targets for steel. Not enough food was produced because the collective effort was placed towards steel production. This was devastating both to the environment and to human life.

After Deng Xiaoping's reforms, Chinese state policy shifted to getting rich first. Any work was acceptable without measuring the consequences to the environment. Most villages and towns in each province, indeed in the entire nation, was willing to do anything for a penny.

Kids go for it in Berlin, the message is important, not the writing.
Kids go for it in Berlin, the message is important, not the writing.Foto: Annette Kögel

Many of the jobs came from Hong Kong, Taiwan, or from the West. They were not simply seeking cheap labor. The developed nations used China to produce everything that they could not in the West such as things that were polluting, energy consuming, or due to labor or social justice concerns. They found a perfect partner in China to produce anything that would not be easy to handle in a democratic society.

Both China and the West have enjoyed this relationship for the last three decades. In doing so, China polluted its rivers and water systems and has contributed the highest amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This has caused dramatic health issues, unsustainable development, and government corruption.

In the future, China will continue to play the same game with the same set of rules as laid out by the West. Either they will further sacrifice themselves or they will export this problem to even poorer nations, such as those in Africa or Latin America.

Can China, one of the biggest CO2-producers of the world, but also one of the most modern technically equipped country, maybe be an idol in fighting global warming, also for Europe and Germany? Green technologies could inspire others, plus companies could make good money with good products - and China is such a mighty player e.g. in Africa with its fast growing population.

China will certainly continue to face many issues because of its large population and its rapid development. China is victimized by sacrificing its environment to match the West's degree of development. Now, it has become conscious of the damage done and has taken corrective steps. China was one of the signatories of the Paris Agreement. China appears willing to make the effort toward sustainable development.

Ai Weiwei, son, partner, join the protest of the youth in Berlin and worldwide..
Ai Weiwei, son, partner, join the protest of the youth in Berlin and worldwide..Foto: Annette Kögel

However, China is still not a democratic society. It's decisions have never been made by its people. The government is so powerful in making decisions which can violate everyone's rights and interests. I cannot imagine that a state like China could be a model of suggested behavior.

Climate change is not only because of producing too much carbon dioxide but also because nations with huge populations, like China and India, have also become massive consumers and because they are continuing to develop. How can we balance the basic rights of economic survival with the issues related to the ruin of the whole planet? We need a clear, global understanding and to come up with policies which every nation can be held accountable to. This is absolutely critical. If this is not established, we will see this miracle of a planet die as a miracle.

Since your yourself are a fighter for human rights, can you give hints for the young generation, how they can succeed?

To have a better environment for a better future is not an ideology, but a practical and necessary thing for the healthy evolution of human beings. It has to start with the public because corporations and governments will not act unless the public demands it forcefully. In democratic societies, without ordinary people's demands for healthy surroundings and a better environment, the situation could deteriorate extremely quickly. It could come to a point of no return.

Climate now, homework later. Global waming needs immediate action, these girls say.
Climate now, homework later. Global waming needs immediate action, these girls say.Foto: Annette Kögel

Capitalism under globalization is incredibly powerful, with corporations operating and seeking profit across different borders. Simply, there is no moral or legal method to stop them because there will always be desperate people, like those in China thirty years ago, willing to sacrifice the environment to those corporations. The problem comes from two sides: greedy and ruthless capitalism in developed nations and the desperate poor in states that do not, or cannot, put environmental concerns at the fore.

For a while, this system appeared to work perfectly, but we are now in a state of crisis. It must be stopped, but who will put a stop to it? Whether we recognize it or not, we are all victimized by not being actively involved in issues directly impacting our future. We are all involved. Individuals, both young and old, have to be more conscious and caring of our planet. We must spread the word, demonstrate on the streets, write to our politicians, and use civil disobedience to put a stop to ruthless and immoral corporate greed and establish new laws to protect the environment and our future.

Mr. Ai Weiwei, many kids will find it cool, that you as a famous human rights acticist are joining their protest...

...well, that's okay, but I think, every kid, that is engaged in fight against global warming, is much cooler than me.

The author Annette Kögel is editor in charge for the weekly Tagesspiegel page "Menschen helfen" about civic engagement in Berlin, Germany and the world, published every Thursday (ePaper). Read the German version of her interview with Ai Weiwei here. For further information or your own activities and engagement against climate change contact Annette Kögel: phone 0049 30 29021 14720, mail: annette.koegel@tagesspiegel.de.

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