China Power

Ai Weiwei and Colour Crackdowns

Recent Features

China Power

Ai Weiwei and Colour Crackdowns

The recent crackdown on activists by Chinese authorities is reminiscent of the last set of colour revolutions.

Two days after he was detained at Beijing airport and there’s still no word on the whereabouts of activist artist Ai Weiwei. Speaking Monday, a US State Department spokesman urged Chinese authorities to release him immediately.

‘The detention of artist and activist Ai Weiwei is inconsistent with the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all Chinese citizens, including China's commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’ Mark Toner said.

According to Ai’s wife, Lu Qing, the police haven’t given her any explanation for her husband's detention, and they’ve refused to tell her where he’s being detained.

Ai is being held as part of an intensifying campaign against democracy activists that is being described by some as the worst crackdown in a decade. Last week, Human Rights Watch called on the United States, European Union and other governments to urge the UN Human Rights Council to review ‘the deteriorating human rights situation in China.’

According to HRW, dozens of lawyers, activists, and bloggers have been detained, arrested, or ‘disappeared’ by Chinese officials, while as many as 200 have been subjected to what it describes as ‘repressive measures, ranging from police summonses to house arrest.’ The government has also significantly increased its censorship of the internet, forced several liberal newspaper editors to step down, and imposed new restrictions on foreign media reporting in Beijing.

Last month, for example, new rules were introduced requiring journalists to get prior permission before engaging in any newsgathering in the city, in what one official simply described as a ‘reinterpreting’ of the rules.

But as uncompromising as the current crackdown is, it’s not the first time that China has responded to colour revolutions like this—the reaction to the Arab world unrest is reminiscent of the response to events in Central Asia several years back.

Speaking at the time, human rights activist John Kamm told the Asia Society that tighter controls introduced in late 2005 were down to an ‘irrational fear’ of colour-coded revolutions. He was of course referring to Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003, the Orange Revolution the following year in Ukraine, and the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan.

Similarly, in November, 2005 the Financial Times reported: ‘Beijing has halted plans to allow foreign newspapers to print in China because of concerns raised by recent “colour revolutions” against authoritarian governments in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, according to a senior media regulator.

‘Shi Zongyuan, head of the General Administration of Press and Publication, said the role of the international media in such popular revolts had prompted the suspension of what had been an cautious, but significant easing of China’s curbs on foreign news publications.’

But although Chinese officialdom’s jitters might not have changed much in the past half decade, technology has certainly moved on. The more boots that China puts on the ground to quash the potential for unrest, the more toes it is treading on. And these people have an increasing number of tools for making sue their shouts are heard.