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The internationally renowned Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei, was detained by local police on April 3 as he was about to board a flight for Hong Kong. According to The Guardian, the assistant traveling with the artist was told that Ai Weiwei had “other business” and was unable to join. Since then, no one has been in contact with Mr Ai.
The 53-year-old celebrated artist has a long record of groundbreaking and provocative, politicized work but his disappearance this month seems to be part of a wider crackdown on the freedom of expression in China. Writers, artists, lawyers and activists have since mid-February been rounded up and silenced in an attempt to strangle the so-called Jasmine Revolution, inspired by the uprising in the Middle East and Africa. According to a report by Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), the government of China has since February, “criminally detained a total of 26 individuals, disappeared more than 30, and put more than 200 under soft detention” after anonymous calls for public protests began to circulate online. The New Yorker refers to the crackdown as ‘The Big Chill’, characterising the difficult situation which the politically active in the Chinese mainland are confronted with – the official position of the government is that these measures are necessary to preserve ‘stability’ but as described by Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, the government of China “has sanctified “stability” to such a degree that any dissent is considered unlawful, which may prove to be the very undoing of real stability.” In effect, ‘The Big Chill’ is reminding dissidents and foreign observers about the continuous surveillance and threat from the government; the lawyer Gao Zhisheng has been missing for nearly a year while a court recently gave the democracy activist Liu Xianbin an unusually harsh sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” – the same charge brought against the Nobel Peace Price winner Liu Xiaobo.
Ai Weiwei may join these names – whether he surfaces in the near future or not. Because of his increased international fame after his involvement in the ‘Bird Nest’ stadium for the Olympics, his detention is seen as the beginning of one of the most high-profile cases in recent years. The artist has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese government but has led a surprisingly ‘spacious’ artistic life with only few interventions by the authorities. Some incidents have revealed the government’s supervision of the artist’s work – in August 2009, Ai was beaten by local police for planning to testify on behalf of the investigation into the bad constructions, suspected of having exaggerated the death toll of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The artist had to undergo acute brain surgery four weeks after the assault, due to a subdural hematoma. Another significant event was the demolition of his studio in Shanghai. However, in spite of these incidents, followers and supporters of Ai Weiwei have said that the artist never delves on these incidents but finds continuous inspiration in their injustice.
Human rights campaigners are viewing his disappearance as a signal to other activists and dissidents to watch out. “Ai Weiwei has been a bit of an outlier and the harassment against him has been more and more intense in the past few months,” Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian. In addition, Mr Ai had been revealing his plans to open up a gallery in Berlin, Germany in response to the constraints he is facing in China, shortly before his detention.
It is believed that The Big Chill was initiated as a response to an online campaign for a Middle East-style protest called the ‘Jasmine Revolution’. Although the anonymous calls were made from overseas and generally showed little domestic support, the Chinese authorities began to detain and harass people within hours of the message’s appearance. Patrick Poon, the executive secretary of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, told the Guardian that he believed the message was simply an excuse to initiate a crackdown on human rights defenders, who have been growing in numbers in the last decade.