The Purge of Ai Weiwei

In Dissent Magazinem, Colin Jones, contributing producer for the upcoming documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, writes about the detention of Ai Weiwei and the crackdown on dissent now underway in China. He also provides background about Ai Weiwei’s friend and associate, Wen Tao, who has also not been heard from since April 3, when he disappeared along with Ai:

“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.

Watch a video of Wen via CDT. Read more about Ai Weiwei and his recent detention.