One Artist Detained; Another Released (Updated)

As news of the apparent detention of activist and artist Ai Weiwei sends shock waves through the world, another artist, Wu Yuren, has been released on parole after ten months in jail. A sentence has not yet been handed down in his case, following his trial on charges of “obstructing public affairs with violence” after a confrontation with police during which Wu has said he was beaten. From a blog run by Wu’s wife, Canadian Karen Patterson:

In light of the recent movements and decisions by Chinese authorities, this also comes as a bit of shock: Wu Yuren was released into family custody on Sunday April 3rd, 5pm in Huairou District of greater Beijing. He stayed with family in a local peasant hostel and returned to Beijing earlier today. Wu is out on parole until his sentence is decided and handed down, and is under supervision from the court.

Wu Yuren is in very good health, and is enjoying time with his daughter (who is over the moon!). Wu is unavailable for interview or comments until further notice.

CBC Radio reports on both Ai Weiwei and Wu Yuren:

Observers say Ai’s arrest represents an escalation in the recent government crackdowns, reaching into the higher rungs of Chinese society. They say the atmosphere in China is the strictest it’s been since 1989’s crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Since Ai was taken into custody on Sunday, police have visited his studio and confiscated computers, hard drives, CDs and notebooks.

Which makes Wu Yuren’s release all the more surprising.

The Guardian’s Art Blog writes about the detention of Ai as his show Sunflower Seeds is still on exhibit at the Tate Modern in London:

Now, Ai Weiwei is being treated by the Chinese police as if he were one more nameless sunflower seed to crush underfoot. An individual of international fame and potent charisma, he seemed unassailable, but presumably that is the point of detaining him – to stamp out the idea that any individual is greater than the law of the state.

Ai Weiwei was not apparently connected with the call for a “Jasmine revolution” that is believed to have provoked the current crackdown in China. Yet this terrific artist has not been afraid to put his criticisms of the government in explicit language. Last year he wrote in the Guardian urging David Cameron on his visit to China to speak up for democratic rights and insist that “the civilised world cannot see China as a civilised country if it doesn’t change its own behaviour”. “I don’t believe that these are western values,” he added. “These are universal values.”

In 2010, this trenchant declaration that democracy is a universal human right – that it is not only for western countries but for all countries – stood out a mile from the run of political discourse. This year, exactly the same call for universal human rights and democracy has transfixed Arab nations, with the same bold rejection of the doublespeak that has in the past led to one-party states being excused or tolerated. No wonder China’s communist party is scared.

An NPR report, however, questions the perception of the artist’s “unassailable” position, and describes Ai’s collision course with the authorities:

Ai is driven by a mission. His friend, owner of the Pekin art gallery Meg Maggio describes it as “giving a voice to the voiceless.”

“He videoshoots everyone, he twitters about everything, so he’s trying to build a modern day history of what he sees as social injustice,” says Maggio.

Building that history of social injustice was always going to put him on a collision course with the authorities. Back in November, as victims of injustice sang their grievances, he appeared outside the courtroom at the trial of fellow artist Wu Yuren to bear witness. His portly figure with his flowing salt-and-pepper beard make him easily identifiable.

He admitted he’d already been warned about his behavior by police, “The actual words are that they’re really deeply worried, and they think what I’m doing is very dangerous. I don’t think it’s a threat. I think it’s a frustration; they don’t know how to deal with things, they don’t know how to communicate. Also it’s beyond their control.” …

…[A]ccording to documentary filmmaker Alison Klayman, who’s been shooting a documentary about the artist, Ai Weiwei has lived for a long time with the knowledge that this day might come.

“Certainly this is a risk that he – like everyone else – knew was always there,” says Klayman. “When people asked him the question ‘How do you get away with what you get away with it?’ His frequent response was, ‘Am I really getting away with things? Haven’t I been beaten? Haven’t I been detained in the hotel in Chengdu? Haven’t I been kept from leaving the country?’

Ai has exhibited widely around the world and his case is therefore getting a great deal of attention in the international media. (The Telegraph gives a rundown of the most famous dissidents currently under detention in China, including Ai.) His case is also getting attention from leaders worldwide, and France and Germany – which Ai has intended to make his new home – have called for his release. From the Guardian:

France and Germany are leading calls for the release of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who remains missing more than 36 hours after his detention.

“I appeal to the Chinese government to urgently provide clarification, and I expect Ai Weiwei to be released immediately,” the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said in a statement.

Earlier this week, Ai said that he was building a studio in Berlin, partially in response to the increasing pressure he faced in China.

French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said his country was very concerned and hoped the artist would be released as soon as possible, Agence France-Presse reported.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague has also issued a statement on Ai’s detention:

“I am very concerned by reports that Ai Weiwei has been detained by the Chinese authorities. I call on the Chinese government to urgently clarify Ai’s situation and wellbeing, and hope he will be released immediately. The UK remains committed to engagement with China on human rights. I am absolutely clear that the development of independent civil society and application of human rights under the rule of law are essential prerequisites for China’s long-term prosperity and stability.”

Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director Sam Zarifi stated that the arrest was intended to act as a deterrent:

“Ai Weiwei was not even involved in any call for ‘Jasmine’ protests. There seems to be no reason whatsoever for his detention, other than that the authorities are trying to broadcast the message that China’s time for open dissent has come to an end,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Director for the Asia-Pacific.

“We’ve already seen the chilling effect the ‘Jasmine Revolution’-related arrests have had on Chinese activists and netizens over the past month. Holding Ai Weiwei takes this to another level,” said Sam Zarifi.

“If the authorities are so bold as to grab this world-renowned artist in broad daylight at Beijing airport, it’s frightening to think how they might treat other, lesser known dissidents.”

The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos writes about this chilling effect in his Letter from China:

Nobody yet knows how his current encounter with the justice system will end; Ai has been incommunicado ever since Sunday morning, when border guards took him into custody as he boarded a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong. Police also searched his studio, a warehouse, and other spaces, and carted off thirty computers and hard drives. His wife and eight assistants were questioned and released. (One aide, Wen Tao, was picked up by a black sedan and has not been seen since.) Beijing police say they know nothing of Ai or Wen.

More than any moment in recent memory, the detention of Ai Weiwei seems to cast a pall over the conversations among writers and artists and thinkers in Beijing on Monday. Over the years, Ai and other artists butted heads over whether his form of activism was worthwhile or vain and counterproductive. The ostensible protection he enjoyed as China’s most famous artist lent ammunition to critics who said he was able to be more provocative than others whom he criticized for their tolerance of injustice. Nobody seemed to be saying that Monday; the clear implication of his detention was that nobody is immune.

At The Atlantic, Ray Gustini argues that “we should have seen Ai Weiwei’s detainment coming … Looking back on some of the reports about the situation in China over the past month, some eerily prescient details stand out.” The Economist also looks at the arrest in the context of recent events, concluding that the law in China is “a spear not a shield”:

There are two worrying features to all this. One is the use of the law to impose political orthodoxy. On March 25th Liu Xianbin, an activist, was sentenced to ten years in prison for “slandering the Communist Party”. But second is the increasingly common resort to informal detentions, punishments and disappearances which are completely outside the law, and so offer the government deniability and the victim no protection whatsoever.

The government now dismisses the idea that one function of the law is to defend people against the arbitrary exercise of state power. On March 4th a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman told foreign journalists who had been beaten up by Chinese police while going about their work: “Don’t use the law as a shield.” Some people, she said, want to make trouble in China and “for people with these kinds of motives, I think no law can protect them.”

Celebrity may at least help Ai Weiwei avoid vanishing for too long into this legal black hole. But it will do little to shield him from the wrath of China’s vindictive rulers.

American architect Lebbeus Woods has announced a boycott of projects in China until Ai is released, as World Architecture News reports:

Working architect and co-founder of the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture, Lebbeus Woods has vowed to reject all new work offers in China until Beijing-based artist and architect Ai Weiwei is released following his detention this weekend ….

A note on Woods’ personal blog states: “The Light Pavilion by me and Christoph a. Kumpusch is already under construction in Chengdu, China. I here state publically that I will not accept another project in China until Ai Weiwei is released unharmed frolam detention or imprisonment.”

Global Voices Online has compiled and translated initial reactions from prominent Chinese Twitter users:

Mo Zhixu, prominent writer and critic (@mozhixu):

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):

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.

Twitter users have started an online petition to free the artist, while others are voting for Ai’s inclusion in the TIME 100 list of “the most influential people in the world”. A campaign is also gathering momentum on Sina Weibo, according to Radio Free Asia:

In spite of direct censorship of Ai’s name on the popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo, netizens managed to launch an “event” titled “Looking for a fat guy called Ai,” garnering dozens of followers within a short space of time.

“Sometimes, life throws mysterious and unexpected things our way. For example, you wouldn’t expect someone suddenly just to disappear,” the event description read a day after Ai was detained at a Beijing airport while trying to catch a flight to Hong Kong.

“Would you just relax and go with the flow, or would you go looking for him? I firmly believe that you will understand the meaning of this event,” it said ¬.

“Venerable Ai, the Venerable Ai is calling you home for dinner!,” wrote user luanshifusheng on Sina Weibo, echoing recent campaigns to release detained activists across China.

“Often Climbs the Wall” wrote: “Fatty Ai, did you know that thousands of grass-mud horses [netizens against censorship] are worrying about you and looking for you?”

“Fatty” is considered a term of endearment in China.

Update:

At Foreign Policy, Renee Xia puts Ai’s arrest in context:

Today, he’s just one name among many. Since mid-February, the nonprofit I work for, Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), has confirmed that Chinese authorities have detained at least 28 individuals, disappeared more than 30, and put more than 200 under house arrest or round-the-clock scrutiny. Three of the criminally detained have been formally arrested, five have been released on bail to await trial, and two have been sent to “residential surveillance” in unknown locations. At least a dozen of the disappeared remain missing, including a number of prominent human rights lawyers.

But these numbers only provide clues to the real picture. CHRD has received information about many more cases of criminal detention, disappearances, and torture than we can currently verify or make public. For instance, there is an unconfirmed report about four artists being criminally detained for “creating disturbances” after opening a performance art installment, called “Performance Art in Sensitive Zone,” wherein an artist strapped with jasmine flowers was buried in the ground. One artist who filmed the exhibit in Beijing and put it online was also reportedly detained. Families have told CHRD that they have been warned against talking publicly about such detentions, on threat that their loved ones will face longer sentences.

On CHRD’s own site (via Shanghaiist) is a map showing the detentions and disappearances of recent weeks, with biographical information and case details.

The US has expressed concern at the detentions of Ai and others; from AFP:

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington was “deeply concerned by the trend of forced disappearances, extra-legal detentions, arrests and convictions of rights activists for exercising their internationally recognized human rights.”

“The detention of artist and activist Ai Weiwei is inconsistent with the fundamental freedom and human rights of all Chinese citizens,” he said. “We urge the Chinese government to release him immediately.”

Alison Klayman (also quoted in the NPR report above) writes at the Huffington Post about efforts to spread disinformation about Ai following his arrest:

While following the Twitter conversation in Chinese about Ai Weiwei’s detention, I had to sift through a lot of false information. Several recently-opened accounts were blasting out the same Chinese messages on repeat, and tagging various supporters of Ai Weiwei to get their attention. One message said the whole situation was a “performance art piece,” while another said Weiwei had suffered a heart attack in police custody and died. In my mind there is no question that these were examples of China’s “50-cent party,” or 五毛党. These are the Internet commentators hired by the Chinese government to post to social media in an effort to shape public opinion. The messages from these Twitter accounts were not forwarded by anyone. I think it was commonly understood by savvy Chinese Twitter users that they were false, and since the messages were never translated, no one else heard the reports. All of those “50-cent” accounts were disabled within a few hours.

The speed and efficiency of the information network that came together around Ai Weiwei’s detention and studio raid is a testament to how Ai and his followers have created an online space for free speech in their society. Transparency is a deeply personal value for Weiwei, and he and his staff have meticulously recorded the past several years of his life on film, in audio files, and on his Twitter feed (@aiww). The record is there for anyone who is interested.

Ai Weiwei is not a criminal. He is an outspoken proponent of free speech, human rights, and transparency in China’s government and judicial system. Ai has violated no law. On the contrary, he has been scrupulous about working through and in accord with the Chinese legal system. His detention, then, seems to be without cause — a violation of Weiwei’s human rights and the rights guaranteed him by the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, especially Articles 35 and 37.

At Slate, Alex Pasternack describes Ai Weiwei’s attitude toward the threat of arrest:

One night a few years ago, as we passed his studio on the outskirts of Beijing after having dinner with friends, I asked Ai Weiwei a question I’d been thinking about nearly since we’d first met a year earlier: Aren’t you afraid of ending up in prison? On the corner was a parked car with someone in the driver’s seat; a surveillance camera was perched across the street. “Sometimes I wish they would take me away,” he said. “I’m getting old.”

That was classic Weiwei: the defiant, weary black humor of a man whose childhood had been defined by his poet father’s political banishment by Mao to the desert of Xinjiang, whose art had been shaped in the punk art communities in Beijing and New York, whose political temper had been forged by years of government corruption and injustice. Now, that taunting wish appears to have come true …

It wasn’t just fearlessness that has kept him going: His global stature and famous father seemed to make him impervious to any serious reprisals by the state. Ignoring him was the government’s best weapon. His joke about wanting to be detained was a kind of angry dare.

The joking may have grown muted awhile ago, but not the daring. After a visit by the police to his studio last week, Weiwei tweeted: “Have I been busted already?”

A lengthy profile of Ai Weiwei by the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos has just been made available for free on the New Yorker site. See also: “Ai Weiwei, Without Fear or Favor”, a BBC documentary; last week’s Frontline episode including a segment on Ai by Alison Klay, and a behind-the-scenes article about the making of it; and a Guardian profile by Tania Branigan; and more about both Ai Weiwei and Wu Yuren via CDT.

[This post was jointly compiled by Samuel Wade and Sophie Beach.]

April 4, 2011 12:26 PM
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