WHY WAS Ai Weiwei allowed to say the things he did? Any journalist who interviewed him in the last several years would eventually ask him the question, and it was incredible how Ai could reformulate the same answer again and again. Here he is on CNN in 2009: “On the one hand, the prime minister would memorize my father’s poetry in front of the great public, but on the other hand, the police were, you know, following me. So it’s hard to say.” In other words, Ai did not know why, but he suggested that whether he was going to get away with it or not remained to be seen.
There is a fine line in China between being a critic of the government and being labeled a subversive. If for these past years Ai navigated it with better luck than many Chinese activists, his run looks to have ended on Sunday, April 3. That morning, about to board a routine flight to Hong Kong, Ai was detained going through customs at the Beijing Capital Airport and never reemerged. The assistant traveling with him waited until a uniformed officer approached her to say that Ai would not be making his flight. He had “other business.” On the same day, some twenty policemen swarmed his studio-residence in a tumbledown village in northeastern Beijing. They confiscated over one hundred pieces of electronic equipment—computers, hard drives, and servers, along with his financial records—and led away seven of Ai’s employees for questioning. His wife, Lu Qing, was detained for the day. Upon her release, she began asking for legal advice on Twitter.
In the first twenty-four hours, there was some hope that Ai’s detention was only temporary. He had clashed with authorities in the past. This was another warning, perhaps, a scare tactic. That hope is fading. The simultaneity of his detainment and the raid on his studio suggests that the decision to move on Ai came from up high. Further evidence that a criminal prosecution may ensue appeared on April 6, when the Party-backed Global Times published an editorial titled “Law Will Not Concede Before Maverick”:
Ai Weiwei is an activist. As a maverick of Chinese society, he likes “surprising speech” and “surprising behavior”.…In such a populous country as China, it is normal to have several people like Ai Weiwei. But it is also normal to control their behaviors by law. In China, it is impossible to have no persons like Ai Weiwei or no “red line” for them in law…
Foreboding ambiguity and awkward locutions are characteristic of the English edition of the Global Times, the Party’s attempt at soft power. Its editorials describe screening college students for political radicalism as “self-management training,” and instead of dissidents there are “weak political elements.” Even so, this kind of sputtering defamation of an individual is not common, especially considering the government had neither filed charges against Ai nor admitted to having him in custody when the article was written.
THE CHINESE government has perhaps never jailed someone with Ai’s celebrity. That it may do so soon has grabbed the world’s attention and provoked calls for his release from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. But Ai’s disappearance is part of a much larger crackdown that began in mid-February, when anonymous Internet users first suggested that China, too, might benefit from a mass movement like those occurring in North Africa and the Middle East. A “Jasmine Revolution” they called it, taking their cue from Tunisia. In the months since, Chinese authorities have “detained a total of 26 individuals, disappeared more than 30, and put more than 200 under soft detention,” according to a March 31 report from the advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders. The numbers differ slightly depending on the source, but there is no doubt that the scope of government action against activists is huge—not on the same scale as what followed Tiananmen, but not rivaled by anything since.
“We have watched the Chinese government over the last couple of years, and particularly over the last couple of months, step up its efforts to silence all forms of dissent,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch. “It no longer seems to matter whether we’re talking about people who are extremely well-known, like Ai Weiwei, or people who are not really known at all.”
In the latter category is Wen Tao, a man with a slight build, in his late thirties, who also disappeared on April 3. Wen met Ai last year when he was working as a reporter at the Global Times. In February 2010, Wen began covering the demolition of an artists’ colony about a mile away from Ai’s studio. The artists did not want to move and held out for weeks in their brick enclave, long after the water and electricity were cut off. The standoff ended with a nighttime visit from some thirty men armed with clubs and pipes. Eight of the artists were injured, one so badly he was temporarily confined to a wheelchair. The next morning, a handful of the artists along with Ai Weiwei, who had taken up their cause, marched down Chang’an Avenue in a ramshackle protest. Had the police not stopped them, they would have walked straight into Tiananmen Square.
Wen wrote a full-length story about the march that was published on the front page of the Global Times. The prominence of the article aside, it was shocking that the protest was even mentioned in the domestic press. I Googled Wen’s name and found a cache of his old stories. They range from pieces about tainted milk to one titled “Air Force Declares War on Birds,” which described measures taken by the People’s Liberation Army to create a “bird-free” zone over northern Beijing. Ai’s name begins showing up frequently following Wen’s report on the protest. Eventually, the two men became friends.
Was it simply his association with Ai Weiwei that made Wen a target? Or did his conversion, from Global Times reporter to something else entirely, make him stand out? Six hours after Ai was detained at the airport, three men grabbed Wen, stuffed him into a car, and drove off. “They gave no explanation whatsoever,” Tweeted a friend who was walking with Wen. “I don’t know where they took him, and as of now, I haven’t been given any information.” Wen, like Ai, and like hundreds of other Chinese activists, is still incommunicado.
FIFTY HOURS after Ai Weiwei disappeared, his mother Gao Ying posted a missing person notice in the alleyway fronting her house. Her action was “a means of inquiring with the police,” she told Deutche-Welle. Chinese law allows the police twelve hours after detaining someone before they must notify the family. In three days, they are supposed to have conferred with the prosecutor about whether the state will press charges. This can be stretched to seven days if the police encounter transportation difficulties or other contretemps. Thirty days may be taken if the case involves matters of national security. This last option has become the norm.
News about Ai might come sooner, however. On Friday, April 8, police told his mother that they would inform her about the status of her son within seven more days. That would put Ai’s case outside the one-week limit but well within thirty days. If this counts as expediting the process, it seems that the attention Ai’s disappearance is receiving has forced the bureaucracy to shift gears. The speed is uncomfortable, and, so far, the government’s message has been confused.
Xinhua, the state news agency, gave the first official nod to Ai’s detention with a one-line blurb that appeared on its website shortly after midnight on April 7. Police were investigating him for “suspected economic crimes.” This was enigmatic in two ways. It contradicted the Global Times editorial, which made Ai’s transgressions out to be overtly political, and within minutes it was taken offline. It is unclear why. By the morning, “economic crimes” had stuck. The Foreign Ministry emphasized this point at its routine press conference and then cut short the briefing. On the same day, the Global Times ran a second editorial on Ai Weiwei. Most notable was the conclusion: “[The] authorities should learn to be more cautious and find sufficient evidence before detaining public figures next time.” (Never mind those citizens without celebrity status.)
The confusion about what to say about Ai Weiwei seems to have lessened now. At the least, it is not playing out in the state press, which has moved on to a vicious smear campaign. (“Participants in Chinese artistic circles often evaluate Ai’s achievements as third rate,” read one recent article.) But the momentary disarray leaves room to wonder. Was this a PR failure? Was Ai detained before the government had put together a legally justifiable reason for doing so? Or is there a conflict in the Party? Are the hardliners and moderates divided about how to handle Ai? The answer is unclear.
“WHAT WE’RE witnessing now is a vivid illustration of the failings of the criminal justice process,” said Jerome Cohen, a professor of law at New York University and expert on the Chinese legal system. “This may be Weiwei’s finest contribution to the human rights field. Until now he’s been calling attention to the denial of substantive freedoms. Now we’re moving on to the other area of political and civil rights: due process of law.”
Since Ai’s detention, police have made regular visits to his studio. Every staff member there has been interrogated, some multiple times, and employees who were not present on the day of the raid have been tracked down. One was brought back to Beijing from Anhui, where she was visiting her relatives for the Qingming festival. Police questioned her for three hours and then released her, according to another employee. Ai’s foreign staff—which includes people from the United States, Holland, and Germany—has been expelled from the studio, and at least two staff members have been told to leave the country. Ai’s driver and his accountant have now also been detained.
This is not a parable telling us to switch from carrot to stick—nor is there much evidence that either has had much effect on the CCP’s treatment of the Chinese people. China is better and freer than it was decades ago, and Ai was a measure of how far it had come. But he has disappeared into an opaque and intractable apparatus, and daily the life he built is being dismantled and diminished. The coordination and thoroughness of this purge betrays a belief that a person can be removed if he or she is sufficiently inconvenient. The Party is now attempting to do this to Ai and some few hundred other dissidents that have vanished since February. This will not work.
Colin Jones is reading for a doctorate in history at Columbia University. He is also a contributing producer for the upcoming documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.
Image: Ai Weiwe