Ai Weiwei’s Cousin to be Released; Others Remain Missing

(For our earlier coverage of Ai Weiwei’s release, see here.)

Ai Weiwei’s release yesterday is to be followed by that of his cousin and driver, Zhang Jinsong. Three of Ai’s other associates remain missing, however. From the Guardian:

Ai’s mother, Gao Ying, said her nephew Zhang Jinsong, who had worked for as the artist’s driver, returned home in a good mental state but had lost around 9kg (20lb). Zhang went missing a few days after his cousin.

Earlier she said she was delighted that Zhang was to be released “since he got into the case because of my son”. The 43-year-old cousin, known to friends as Xiao Pang, travelled and worked closely with Ai.

Three other associates who went missing shortly after Ai remain unaccounted for ….

They include Ai’s friend Wen Tao, 38. Wen’s girlfriend, Shi Jing, said his family had received no information about him ….

Hu Mingfen, 55, the accountant for the company that handled Ai’s affairs, and Liu Zhenggang, 49, a designer who worked at the artist’s studio, are also still missing.

The three are among the dozens of names on a partial list of disappeared individuals under the Chinese regime published by Amnesty International UK.

China’s Foreign Ministry has commented on Ai’s own situation. From Reuters:

Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news briefing that Ai’s “obtaining a guarantee pending a trial” can last up to 12 months ….

“Ai is still in the investigation period for suspected crimes,” Hong said.

China’s foreign ministry has said Ai was being investigated on suspicion of economic crimes, but Chinese police have issued no formal notice to his family to explain why he is being held.

“He is not allowed to leave where he lives, cannot interfere (with) other people’s testimony, cannot fabricate evidence nor collaborate with others to make false confessions,” Hong said.

Where Ai can go remains unclear, however.

According to the BBC, Hong clarified that “‘area of residence’ meant ‘the city’ (Beijing) and stressed that Mr Ai was not confined to his house“. Nevertheless fears remain that Ai may be kept under house arrest. The Wall Street Journal optimistically suggested that this might form the basis of a new form of tourism:

This form of detention is the Communist Party’s latest tactic for dealing with property rights campaigners, human rights lawyers and other independent thinkers. Since the threat of prison is no longer enough to keep them quiet, and prison itself creates martyrs like Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, the police have created a purgatory that hides political prisoners in plain sight.

As well as being cut off from human contact, dissidents and their families are harassed and prevented from buying food and other necessities. Last week, a letter from blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng reached the outside world detailing how he and his wife were savagely beaten in their home in February by the local authorities, apparently in retaliation for smuggling out a video that exposed the conditions of their confinement.

Turning Beijing’s apartment buildings into plain-clothes prisons for the intellectual elite may be ingenious, but perhaps human rights campaigners could use them to expose the regime’s repression. Foreign tourists want to learn about all sides of China, so they should be able to find maps to the dissidents’ homes online, like the star tours in Beverly Hills. On their last day in China, they could try to visit a celebrity who would be only too happy to see them, if it weren’t for the regime’s thugs lurking outside the door.

The “why” and “why now” of Ai’s release have been subject to much discussion, particularly regarding the extent to which international politics and public pressure played a part. From Evan Osnos in The New Yorker:

The other big question—for activists, for the State Department—will be to pin down what role the outside world played in his release. One of the most enduring issues in activist and diplomatic circles is whether public pressure on the Chinese government helps or hurts those who have been arrested. This case will be studied for a long time because Ai’s detention became politically expensive on a scale rarely seen. Artists and museums around the world had called for his release—Anish Kapoor, one of the most vocal, remained cautious after news of the release, saying, “While I am thankful that he has been released, I do not think that artists should present their work in China until the situation has been resolved.” A petition had attracted more than a hundred and forty thousand signatures, as well as an attack by hackers, which the hosts of the petition suspected originated in China. My early sense is that, to oversimplify it for the moment, the public pressure was effective, but the outcome must also be read in terms of Chinese diplomatic calculations. Ai was released a few days before Cui Tiankai, the vice foreign minister, heads to Hawaii to meet with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, and Wen Jiabao is preparing to go to Germany and elsewhere in Europe. (Angela Merkel applauded the news of Ai’s release, but also said it was only a “first step” in clearing up the case.)

The Atlantic Wire gathered some of the frontrunning theories:

Wen Jiabao is looking to save face in Europe. Shortly after Ai’s release, Amnesty International issued a statement in which its Asia Pacific deputy director Catherine Baber called Ai’s release a “tokenistic attempt to deflect mounting criticism” before Chinese premiere Wen Jiabao visits several European countries where Ai has a large following …

International pressure actually worked. China does not like to appear weak, and appearing to be moved by the outcry over Ai’s detention would have done so. But it also doesn’t want to risk its ever-rising international clout over the treatment of one dissident …

It could be a distraction from other activists still in detention. Amnesty’s Baber was quick to point out that Ai is by far not the only democracy activist detained in China …

For all his dissenting views, Ai is a pretty good PR vehicle for China. U.S. museums show more and more Chinese work and exhibits by artists like Ai attract big crowds …

The site hosting the petition Osnos mentioned seemed confident of where credit lay, crowing “Victory! Chinese Dissident Ai Weiwei Freed After Landmark Change.org Campaign“. But Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei predictably denied foreign influence, according to Reuters: “The Chinese judicial authorities have acted in accordance with the law and have independently acted on the case. We hope the relevant countries will be able to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and not interfere in it.” The Global Times was similarly dismissive:

Western media have preferred to see this as a result of political pressure from Western governments and human rights groups.

They continue to push Chinese authorities to release other people involved in the same case.

It may be worth questioning whether the police could have done better in handling Ai’s case, such as the timeliness in disclosing official information about his arrest. However, the entire process from Ai’s arrest to his release shows the country’s positive efforts in improving its legal procedures.

The authorities will draw some lessons from this case, as from the controversies that have ensued. In the meantime, celebrities, especially those who are enthusiastic about politics, will also become smarter in keeping themselves clean and not breaking the law.

In some Westerners’ eyes, China has no rule of law at all. The “dictators” can arrest whomever they want simply at the stroke of a pen. The Western critics care nothing about what laws Ai and other “political dissidents” may have broken.

At China Law & Policy, Elizabeth Lynch adds to Jerome A. Cohen’s legal analysis of the case:

If bail is limited in China, what are the circumstances in which it is given? Prof. Cohen rightly points out that the consideration is largely political and has little to do with rule of law – it’s a good way for the Chinese government to get out of a difficult situation when international criticism mounts (Evan Osnos also has an interesting take on the impact of international pressure on Ai’s release). But was Xinhua’s reason for bail – good attitude and a chronic disease – a legal basis for the rare reward of bail?

As a matter of fact, there is a basis in law. Article 60 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) makes clear bail may be granted in those cases where the “criminal suspect or accused…should be arrested but are suffering from a serious illness….” Ai suffers from diabetes and during his ordeal, Ai’s family repeatedly expressed his concerns about his health to the international press. So while the Chinese government likely made a political choice to release Ai, there is in fact a veneer of legality. But the claim of “good attitude” for bail is found nowhere in the CPL.

But what is perhaps a more interesting question, is the validity of the alleged charges of tax evasion. Ai’s company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development, Ltd., is a limited company – how is Ai personally on the hook for the company’s tax evasion? Presumably there would be limited liability, so how are the authorities able to attribute the company’s evasion to Ai? On that issue, tune in later, same bat-time, same bat-channel.

Ai Weiwei’s blog appears to have become accessible once more sometime earlier this month.

China Daily USA took out sponsored ads on Twitter to push its own report—a rerun of the original Xinhua story—to the top of relevant search results. One street vendor also took advantage of the situation, stationing himself outside Ai’s house to serve the gathered media.

See also: Ray Kwong’s collection of links to four slideshows of Ai Weiwei’s art at Forbes, and the Frontline documentary Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei at PBS.org.