China’s best known artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei, was detained in Beijing as he tried to board a flight to Hong Kong on Sunday 3 April, 2011. Ai is the latest to join a long list of human rights activists, lawyers and writers who have been arrested, detained or gone missing in the country.
It is commonly held that he is somehow protected from official crackdown by his international reputation and the status of his father, a renowned poet. If Ai is not immune, it is a worrying signal that China’s crackdown on dissent has reached a whole new level.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Image by Flickr user DigiPub (CC BY-ND 2.0).
Below are selected initial reactions of Ai Weiwei’s detention on Twitter, where some of China’s most liberal minds gather. An online Twitter petition, Free Ai Weiwei, so far signed by hundreds of people, has also been set up.
Mo Zhixu, prominent writer and critic (@mozhixu):
3:11 PM Apr 4th
I remember talking with Ai Weiwei during New Year’s Eve. I said that the authority will find it difficult to deal with people like Ai Weiwei and Ran Yunfei, who act individually and are not affiliated with any party. They are safe. Now, events in North Africa have changed everything. Someone has to act sooner, so as to prevent the emergence of another Liu Xiaobo. However, can you say everything is alright just by eliminating the likes of Liu Xiaobo?
Chang Ping, outspoken journalist and commentator, formerly with the Southern Media Group (@chang_ping):
11:17 PM Apr 4th
While making a speech to the media faculty of the Chinese University of Hong Kong this afternoon, I mentioned that the journalist of The New Yorker described that China’s media is entering an ice age following the detention of Ai Weiwei. This makes me think of the crackdown on the print media in 1995, which was followed by an age of explosive growth.
Liu Xiaoyun, Beijing-based human rights lawyer (@liu_xiaoyuan):
12:14 AM Apr 5th
Ai Weiwei is being detained, his workshop being searched. Whether Ai is right or wrong, this is a big news and an important topic. I cannot imagine that the Chinese media is uniformly silent. This is such as tragedy!
Feng Zhenghu, Shanghai-based human rights activist (@fzhenghu):
11:21 PM Apr 4th
Call for the release of Ai Weiwei, Wentao and other missing persons in China. As Lung Ying-tai said, if you think that other people’s misfortune is none of your business, then one day when misfortune descends upon you, no one will care. Protecting other people from unlawful acts is also to protect yourself.
Shi Feike, journalist and activist (@shifeike):
8:08 PM Apr 3rd
The situation is clear. Like what I said to my friends, earlier arrests and detentions, like those targeting Guo Daxa, Liu Xiaoyun, Li Tiantian and Wentao, were just clearing surrounding obstacles. The ultimate target is Ai Weiwei. The party and government seem to be well versed with tactics and foresight.
4:05 PM Apr 4th
My understanding is that Ai’s resources, character, reputation and unique style have made him a ‘nail’ in the rights defense movement. The authority is making a targeted action this time in order to remove this nail.
Ai Xiaoming, feminist literary scholar, documentary filmmaker and human rights activist (@xiaocao07):
8:21 PM Apr 3rd
Ai Weiwei is progressive. But he also mocked the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China, withdrew his signature of Charter 08, and even attacked Liu Xiaobo and Cui Weiping. That he can maintain his reputation is because he has done a lot of good deeds. Shouting out for children and aggrieved persons, and insisting on the freedom of expression. The present crackdown on Ai Weiwei is not targeted at the ‘Jasmine Revolution’; it is targeted at all people who aspire to justice and truth.
12:11 PM Apr 4th
Today we cannot see Ai Weiwei on Twitter. But today you can become Ai Weiwei. If you love him, live like him. Like Ai Weiwei, love your relatives, friends, children, cats and dogs, and speak for aggrieved people. When innumerable people become Ai Weiwei, China will become a truly blessed state.
Peng Xiaoyun, opinion page editor of Guangzhou-based Time Weekly Magazine (@Pengxiaoyun):
8:46 PM Apr 3rd
He cannot be counted as a political dissent. What he has done is just recording the names of lost children day after day. What he cares about is just a citizen’s quest for truth. What he has shown is just how an artist can participate in society. What he has called for is just the rich imagination and possibility of the individual. If even these cannot be tolerated, then it is the dead end. It is apparent that policy makers are determined to become ‘information refugees’.
3:47 PM Apr 4th
On why the authority has decided to take action on Ai Weiwei, I think it is that the defense mechanism of the ruling party has over-reacted. This is due to fear caused by information asymmetry. Fear is not unique to the people. Rulers whose legitimacy problems are not resolved are also fearful. They are fearful about Ai’s tremendous followings on the Internet. But I must also add that such weak associations on the Internet are still very far away from those needed for a social movement. However, even with such weak associations, the authority is already arresting so many people. The stability preservation budgets must be reaching new heights.
8:07 PM Apr 4th
Ai has shown how an artist can participate in social affairs. He has overthrown the traditional image of China’s intellectuals – self-preserving, moderate, and pedantic. He has international visions, he is humorous and lovely, and he is well versed with the boundaries of civil movement. He is not a politician, but the authority is helping to nurture a political opponent for itself.
Wang Dan, student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement (@wangdan1989):
9:57 PM Apr 3rd
If Ai Weiwei is really being arrested, and a wave of protest does not emerge from the civil society, this will embolden the authority to arrest people at random in future. If we do not support Ai today, the one being arrested tomorrow will be ourselves.
10:01 PM Apr 3rd
The only way to stop the authority from arresting more people is to let too many people stand out to the extent that the authority cannot continue to arrest.
10:24 PM Apr 3rd
From Liu Xianbin to Ran Yunfei, from Ran Yunfei to Ai Weiwei, the actions of the authority are not made at random. This is clearly a decision from the highest levels of the authority. Who makes this decision? Hu Jintao? Zhou Yongkang? Wen Jiabao? The Chinese Communist Party must hold the person responsible for this crackdown to account. We need to find out this person, denounce him, and make his name the equivalence of evil in history.
Luo Shihong, Taiwan media academic and public intellectual (@telshl):
8:48 PM Apr 3rd
I was optimistic about China’s progressive development and the cross-strait relations. Ai Weiwei’s detention has shaken my confidence. With such actions in the mainland, how can Taiwanese not be afraid? Does such a strong nation need to treat a mere artist in this way? After this incident, people who don’t understand performance arts will start to appreciate them.
9:51 PM Apr 3rd
Not everyone likes Ai Weiwei. But Ai represents the spirit of the age, the spirit of being a citizen. This spirit makes China’s atmosphere become more liberal. People no longer suffocate; they can start to breathe without fear.