Everything You Need to Know About Ai Weiwei’s Take-Down of the NSA

Turning his attention away from overbearing Chinese censorship, Ai Weiwei did not equivocate in his criticism of the American government, published in the Guardian earlier this week. Responding to the fallout over former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden’s divulgence of the breadth of American intelligence operations, Ai opens the piece stating that he “was shocked by the US surveillance operation, Prism.”

No stranger to the consequences of invasive and oppressive legal institutions, in 2011 Ai spent 81 days imprisoned in cell where the lights were never turned off and two security guards monitored his every move — an experience he portrays in six large-scale dioramas currently being exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

Having lived in America for 12 years, Ai’s condemnation of the NSA is rooted in his appreciation of the freedoms Americans are accustomed to. “The US has a great tradition of individualism and privacy and has long been a centre for free thinking and creativity as a result.” He continued, “China is far behind the world in important respects: even though it has become so rich, it trails behind in terms of passion, imagination and creativity.”

Ai also wrote about the ways in which American behavior impacts the rest of the world. “A nation like the US, which is technically advanced, should not take advantage of its power. It encourages other nations.” He wrote, “When human beings are scared and feel everything is exposed to the government, we will censor ourselves from free thinking. That’s dangerous for human development.”

—Sara Roffino