The famous artist and dissident once seen as a protected "princeling" has been detained by a Beijing regime increasingly fearful that the revolutionary fervor gripping the Mideast will spread to China. Melinda Liu reports. Plus, Ai Weiwei reflects on his 2009 arrest and beating.
China's widening net of repression seems to have netted its biggest fish yet. Authorities detained Ai Weiwei, a high-profile and outspoken figure in the world of avant-garde art and architecture, as he attempted to board a flight to Hong Kong on Sunday. Ai's whereabouts remained unknown as of early Thursday Beijing time.
For nearly four days, the government didn't even confirm that Ai had been detained. But as worry and outrage mounted in the West over his disappearance, an editorial in the state-run newspaper Global Times on Wednesday indirectly acknowledged his detention and painted a portrait of Ai as a "maverick of Chinese society" who likes nothing more than "to do something 'others dare not do.'" In its English and Chinese editions, the publication contended that the West "ignored" China's complex judicial environment to perceive Ai as a simple case of "human-rights suppression." The paper, which often provides a platform for nationalistic voices, declared that Ai "chooses to have a different attitude from ordinary people toward law. However the law will not concede before 'mavericks' just because of the Western media's criticism."
By describing Ai as an oddity prone to "surprising " speech and behavior, the Global Times tried to make him out as a unique case with little bearing on "China's great economic and social progress." Yet Ai is unique precisely because everyone once thought of him as untouchable. His father, Ai Qing, had been one of modern China's most famous poets. The younger Ai was therefore a "princeling," which in Chinese political parlance refers to a child seen to have inherited sterling "revolutionary" credentials from a parent or parents. That Ai fell out of favor for his activism proves that politics can trump even the perks of the privileged.
Ai is also a visionary artist and architect. He helped design Beijing's iconic Bird's Nest Stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics, and the government promoted him as a cultural ambassador in the run-up to the Games. But that year turned out to be a pivotal one for Ai. He was profoundly affected by the death toll of the massive May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which huge numbers of children died because their schools (many reportedly of shoddy construction) collapsed. Ai became increasingly critical of the government for alleged corruption in the building of schools in Sichuan. (One of his subsequent works featured 9,000 children's backpacks, evoking the terrible post-quake scenes.)
In August 2009, Ai was beaten by police while attempting to attend the trial of Tan Zuoren, another Chinese who tried to investigate substandard building practices in the Sichuan quake zone. The following month, Ai was diagnosed as suffering from a subdural hematoma—bleeding on the brain—at a German hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery. A few months later, Ai wrote about his beating in Newsweek, appealing to President Barack Obama (who was about to visit China for the first time) to consider, "What does it matter if China's economy grows when there are no basic protections for its citizens?"
If Beijing hoped to preempt grassroots discontent, its treatment of Ai is proving to be counterproductive.
Although Ai had been detained previously, his disappearance this week appeared to have more strategic planning behind it. His detention was preceded and followed by police sweeps of his studio in Beijing and questioning of those close to him. It took place after dozens of political activists, writers, lawyers, bloggers, artists, and other critics of the regime had been detained in an escalating crackdown. Since mid-February, scenes of unrest in the Mideast—and anonymous online exhortations for like-minded protests in China—have made the Beijing government jittery about the possibility of a Jasmine Revolution erupting in the Middle Kingdom.
But if Beijing hoped to preempt grassroots discontent, its treatment of Ai is proving to be counterproductive. Ai's supporters have circulated tens of thousands of online messages calling for his release, despite the fact that his name is blocked on Sina Weibo, China's extremely popular Twitter-like microblogging service. To get around that obstacle, Netizens started referring to Ai Weiwei as Ai Weilai—which means "Love the future" but is also nearly homophonous with the artist's name—but then that phrase was blocked as well.
Britain's foreign secretary and his German counterpart urged Beijing to clarify Ai's situation and to free him. The U.S. government will get its chance to press home its "deep concern" when Kurt Campbell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, arrives in Beijing on Thursday. He was supposed to help both governments prepare for an upcoming session of the Sino-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue—but now Ai's disappearance threatens to intrude on that agenda.
U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman, Jr., in a farewell speech ahead of his departure from China to launch a presidential bid in the U.S., directly criticized Beijing's human rights record, singling out the detentions and imprisonment of prominent Chinese such as 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, American citizen Xue Feng, a geologist imprisoned on charges of stealing state secrets, and Ai. "The United States will never stop supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur," Huntsman said in a lecture that was unusually sharp for a foreign diplomat. A commentary in the Wall Street Journal suggested that Campbell's trip be postponed "until Beijing tells the world in which dungeon it has dumped Ai Weiwei."
It would be too simple to attribute Ai's detention solely to the government's fear of an Arab Spring infecting China. In fact, the artist's confrontations with officialdom seemed to escalate last year. In November he was placed under house arrest; at the end of the year he was barred from leaving China, apparently to prevent him from trying to attend the Nobel award ceremony for Liu Xiaobo. On Jan. 11, Ai was startled to learn authorities were razing his studio in Shanghai, weeks before the slated demolition date.
In February, Ai started adding up the numbers of Chinese detained in relation to rumored "Jasmine" protests; he kept his tally on Twitter. (Even though the Great Firewall of China blocks Twitter, many Net-savvy Chinese nonetheless access it using commercially available VPNs and proxy servers.) On Feb. 24, Ai tweeted: "I didn't care about jasmine at first, but people who are scared by jasmine sent out information about how harmful jasmine is… which makes me realize that jasmine is what scares them the most."
Ai's focus on "Jasmine"-related detentions also coincided with an especially sensitive period. Every year, the traditional Tomb-Sweeping Festival, which takes place in early April, signals the beginning of China's political season, when protests are more likely to ignite—remember 1989?—as spring fever erupts and citizens shake off the dead hand of winter. In fact, the first "Tiananmen Incident" wasn't in 1989 but rather on April 5, 1976, during the Tomb-Sweeping Festival when Chinese youth gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn the January death of Premier Zhou Enlai. Their emotion morphed into anger against the radical Gang of Four, who ordered a heavy-handed crackdown on the unrest. Now Ai himself has become a statistic in the "Jasmine" tally he'd been keeping—and the balmy days of spring are just beginning to permeate Beijing.
Melinda Liu is Bejiing bureau chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, a veteran foreign correspondent, and recipient of a number of awards including the 2006 Shorenstein Journalism Award acknowledging her reporting on Asia.