Fate of Ai Weiwei


AI WEIWEI crossed an invisible line in the sand in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The internationally celebrated artist, a tolerated public intellectual not afraid to voice criticism of the Beijing government, seemed – his mother, writer Gao Ying suggests – to have moved beyond “acceptable” dissent with films and blogs about how the corruption of officials contributed to the structurally faulty schools whose collapse led to so many children’s deaths. Now Ai is under arrest for unspecified economic crimes.

On his Twitter account, which has more than 70,000 followers, he had been keeping track of the lawyers and dissident intellectuals who have been arrested in the recent crackdown, the product of Chinese fears of democratic contagion from the Middle East. “Today we are all Egyptian,” Ai tweeted in February, observing that while it had taken 18 days for the Egyptian regime to collapse “this thing [the Chinese government] that has been for 60 years may take several months”.

In 2009 Ai, the son of one of China’s most revered poets, was beaten by police and underwent surgery for a cerebral haemorrhage. His blog was shut down. In 2010 he was put under house arrest in Beijing while a new studio in Shanghai was razed by city authorities for allegedly having been built without proper permits. Now the authorities say they are preparing economic charges against him.

Since February, 26 dissidents have been arrested and 30 others have disappeared. Some now face charges of “inciting subversion of state power” for which 2010 Nobel winner Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11-year term. And, just as they did in Liu’s case, the authorities or their mouthpieces, in this case popular tabloid the Global Times, have reacted with a bullying, cynical indignation to international protests, branding them interference with China’s internal affairs. “The law will not stray off course or make concessions for some ‘special persons’ because of criticism from the West,” the paper editorialised. “History will render its own verdict on people like Ai Weiwei, and before then they may pay some price for their own special choices,” it warned ominously.

However, behind China’s bluster, as Ai speculated, is a deeper sense of the regime’s fragility, a “paper tiger”, as Mao Zedong once described the US: “In appearance ... terrifying, but in reality they are not so powerful. ... it is not the reactionaries but the people who are really powerful.” Or, as a Chinese proverb has it, “Silencing the people is more dangerous than damming a river”.