In some strange ways, it is as if he had a premonition. Last week, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei unexpectedly announced that he was going to build his new studio in Berlin. (His Shanghai studio was razed without warning by Chinese authorities in January.) He told reporters that he had chosen Berlin because of its artistic community and the relatively cheap cost of building. He would have to oversee the project, but the artist and government critic wanted to spend “as little time as possible” in Germany, adding, “however, there will be no choice if my work and life are somehow threatened.”
A few days later, his words seem eerily prescient. On Sunday, Ai was detained by police as he attempted to board a flight to Hong Kong. He and an assistant were on their way to Taiwan to discuss plans for an upcoming exhibit. Almost immediately after his detention, his Beijing studio was raided by Chinese police, who detained his wife and eight other assistants. The neighborhood around his studio was blocked off and was reportedly crawling with plainclothes police. While his wife and staff have been released, Ai has not been heard from since his detention and Chinese authorities have not informed his family why he is being held. To date, Beijing has ignored demands for an explanation of Ai’s whereabouts and condition from the United States, Britain, France, Germany and a growing number of human rights groups.
Chinese government crackdowns typically come in cycles, what China experts often call “fang” (loosening) and “shou” (tightening). But those same experts will tell you that this time it feels different. The environment for Chinese civil society groups had already become far more restrictive in the past 12 months. But the government’s clampdown on free expression has tightened even further since a wave of popular unrest has shaken authoritarian governments across the Middle East. Last month it was revealed that Beijing’s budget for domestic security — police, state security, jails, and so on — now exceeds the country’s defense budget. Furthermore, scores of Chinese rights lawyers and activists have either been arrested or simply disappeared in recent weeks, and hundreds have been put under house arrest. I met with one such activist in Beijing who believed he simply hadn’t been put under house arrest yet because he hadn’t returned home in more than a week.
An expert on civil society groups I spoke to there, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said that it appeared that the Chinese government was trying to “establish a new normal” for what it is permissible. Ai Weiwei, an internationally renowned artist who has an exhibit currently showing at the Tate Modern and another expected to go up next month in New York, is by far the most high-profile government critic to be detained thus far.
Don’t expect Beijing to explain how this most recent crackdown should be interpreted or what it aims to achieve. It is quite probable that the regime is attempting to redraw the red lines of what will or will not be tolerated, and sending a message to its most vocal critics that the old rules no longer apply. Ai may be the son of one of China’s most revered poets and well known the world over, but the Chinese Communist Party is making clear that none of this guarantees his safety. In the end, the party will not clarify its purpose because it believes the obscure and arbitrary nature of its repression creates even more fear for those who would contemplate speaking out. If the targets of its repression cannot know when they will be targeted, how can anyone else?
The trouble for Beijing is it is hardly clear how imprisoning someone like Ai will silence him. In the two days since his arrest, Chinese netizens have been posting messages about Ai’s detention as fast as Chinese government censors can delete them. And, in the newest example of the creative form that dissent can take in China, Chinese Internet users have begun to post the phrase, “Love the Future” — which is composed of Chinese characters that look and sound very similar to Ai’s name. There is something tragically poetic about a government that would fear a phrase like that.