For awhile, it seemed like Chinese artist Ai Weiwei had a free pass when it came to criticizing the Chinese government. Sure, he toed the line between human rights activist and artist, but he was also famous enough to have his own show at the Tate Modern and even helped design the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium for Beijing’s 2008 Olympic games. He was, some thought, untouchable, yet as we’ve seen with Russia’s rebel art collective Voina, politically charged art takes on a whole new tenor in countries with seriously repressive governments and it appears Ai Weiwei has finally gone too far.
The artist has been missing since Sunday morning when he was detained at the Beijing airport while waiting for a flight to Hong Kong. His wife and several of his assistants were also detained during a raid on his studio. This has understandably caused an uproar, with EU and U.S. officials ditching their usual tip-toeing around the issue of China’s human rights record by releasing statements like this from U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner [via The Guardian]:
“We obviously continue to be deeply concerned by the trend of forced disappearances, extralegal detentions, arrests and convictions of human rights activists for exercising their internationally recognised human right for freedom of expression.”
This, of course, is exactly why China was hesitant to arrest Weiwei before. Condemnation from China’s main trade partners can’t be good for its economy, but apparently Weiwei was just that much of a threat. Handcrafting millions of sunflower seeds for the Tate (below) is one thing; exposing the death caused by shoddy building practices, due mostly to corruption, during the 7.9-magnitude Sichuan earthquake in 2008 is another.
Evan Osnos over at The New Yorker calls it part of China’s “Big Chill,” a quiet crackdown on artists, writers and other activists in which the Chinese government has “criminally detained 26 individuals, disappeared more than 30, and put more than 200 under soft detention.” The echoes of the Middle Eastern revolutions seems to have unsettled the Chinese authorities, especially when the quasi-movement known as the “Jasmine Revolution” broke out in several Chinese cities in February.
Ai Weiwei had been increasingly bold recently, speaking out on his banned website, Twitter and most recently via secret videotape at the 2011 TED conference, which just released his talk online (below) after previously withholding it for the artist’s safety.
China has always been a peculiar case, a functional totalitarian regime with a knack for global capitalism. As long as people’s standard of living went up, the government felt relatively safe from the kind of mass protests that recently rocked Egypt and Tunisia. This, however, might be changing. The global recession has hit China too. Unemployment and massive income inequality are high. Andy Lubman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, points out the pressures China’s government faces on the Wall Street Journal:
Since 1979, China has made progress toward establishing some version of the rule of law. But top-down legal reforms largely occur only around the edges of authoritarian rule. With the government eager to limit the scope of reforms to protect the status quo of Party rule, pressures from Chinese society for deeper and more meaningful reforms will only increase, particularly as the Internet and social media continue to broaden Chinese people’s awareness of events both within China and abroad.
Economic growth will not placate the people forever. Dissidents like Ai Weiwei are spreading a popular message that the government was previously willing to ignore; the fact that they finally are cracking down on it is a sign that something big is changing in China.