Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei was detained Sunday at Beijing airport. He’s been a thorn in the side of the authorities for a while, so why would he have been arrested now?
This is part of a broader crackdown, and I think it’s the typical ‘kill the chicken to scare the monkey’ tactic that the Chinese government uses. They are rounding up lots of prominent people who previously had been harassed, but hadn’t been taken into custody. Or some had been briefly detained, but then quickly let go. So this is part of a broader trend.
So is Ai’s detention likely to be one of these detain and release scenarios or do you think the authorities might be planning to press charges?Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
As you say, they’ve had their eye on him for a while. But I think that the co-ordinated raid on his studio, the detention of his assistant, the seizure of equipment – this looks like part of a serious investigation. And I think there are some very worrying signs about the way he was taken into custody and about what has happened since. The fact that he hasn’t been allowed to contact his family and that his lawyer hasn’t been allowed to see him all point to a secretive investigation that’s very serious.
You mention this is part of broader crackdown. Is it connected to worries about the kind of unrest seen in the Arab world spreading to China, or does this crackdown predate that?
Certainly there has been a surge in detentions over the past two months, since the call went out for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China. There has been a massive uptick in the number of detentions of lawyers, bloggers, and dissidents and particularly with some prominent cases such as Ai Weiwei.
But I think going back further, although it has been more intense in the past two months, I think it has been part of a broader crackdown that started in the period before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which was then followed by a post-Olympics tightening – which included the detention of Liu Xiaobo. When someone speaks out calling for political reform that they feel threatens one-party rule, such as with Charter 08, the authorities tend to freak out and clamp down. So in late 2008, when Charter 08 was published, there was a surge in detentions. And since Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, there’s been another surge in detentions.
So in some sense, these things are event driven in terms of the detention of certain groups of people. But they are also part of a continuum, with the Communist Party unable to manage dissent in a way that isn’t coercive. It’s part of a continuum of the Party’s insecurity on a certain level about its domestic legitimacy. There’s an absolute obsession with stability within the Party, and it sees the detention of people like Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei as critical to maintaining its vision of stability.