“There’s no clear political agenda so it’s very easy to just arrest them and move on,” said the high-profile dissident at his home in Portugal.
Known for criticising Beijing’s policies through his art, Ai said there were more “demands” in 1989 when the authorities carried out 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.
The artist was sceptical about the emergence of any kind of leadership in the ongoing protests, saying nobody could successfully steer demonstrations in the country because it does not have a “political environment”.
“For 70 years, they cleaned out any people, intellectual or media who can raise any question,” said Ai, who was detained in 2011 for 81 days during a crackdown on activists.
But despite being restrained in his hope about the protest’s outcome, he said the ruling Communist Party was “very worried about revolutions” and would do “everything to prevent this from happening, including deploying internet censorship to using police force”.
The protests across China were triggered by a fire in the Xinjiang region last week that killed 10 people who were trapped in their apartments. Protesters said Covid lockdown measures were partly to blame, though officials denied that.
Many protesters are holding blank pieces of paper to highlight censorship and the lack of freedom of expression in the country. With their voices left unheard in the Chinese media, some have spoken about their wider grievances to foreign news outlets.
“We have come here to oppose the pandemic prevention measures. We live in an autocratic world and what we hope to see most is for China to have democracy and freedom,” said Lemar, a 20-year-old student boxing coach in Beijing.
The international spotlight on internal discontent has led to the targeting of foreign media.
Ed Lawrence, a BBC journalist, was assaulted and arrested in Shanghai. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China issued a statement saying it was “extremely disturbed” by the treatment of reporters covering the protests, pointing out that foreign journalists are “entitled to unfettered access to report in China” under Chinese law.
Instead, “journalists from multiple outlets were physically harassed by police while covering the unrest, and at least two journalists were detained,” it said.
The UK summoned China’s ambassador on Tuesday to protest Lawrence’s treatment.
He also asked journalists not to engage in activities “unrelated to their role”, implying the BBC journalist was taking part in the protests instead of covering them.
China has increased police presence on the streets in several of its cities to curb protests even as demonstrations in solidarity have begun in cities across the world.