"We Want to Shame You": Details of Ai Weiwei's Detention

Details of Ai Weiwei’s experiences in detention have emerged for the first time, adding to remarks the artist recently made to a reporter for Hong Kong’s Apple Daily. From The New York Times:

The sergeants were never more than 30 inches from his side, and sometimes just four inches away, and they stayed there as he slept, showered and used the bathroom, Mr. Ai said.

“It is designed as a kind of mental torture, and it works well,” he added ….

Mr. Ai’s associate, who insisted on anonymity because of the risk of official retaliation, said that from the very beginning of Mr. Ai’s detention, the police had made it clear that it would be a difficult experience. “He told me that when he was taken from the airport, the police told him: ‘You always give us trouble, now it’s time for us to give you trouble,’ ” the associate said ….

“He said he was questioned by the police more than 50 times, and none of those was about the tax issue of the company, but mostly about his blog,” the associate said, adding that the police had vehemently criticized Mr. Ai for his postings. “How dare you say those things, you are too defiant, disobedient,” the associate said they would say ….

“He told me that he was made to wash his own cloths by hand, which was his favorite, happiest thing to do, because he felt like that was the only thing he could do with his own hands,” the associate said.

The conditions of Ai’s release have channelled these details along an indirect route, with nameless sources passing them to various media organisations and the artist himself nodding when asked to confirm the accounts. Even these indirect revelations may be risky, but Ai told The Wall Street Journal that he feels he has no choice:

Mr. Ai told The Wall Street Journal by phone on Thursday he still could not directly discuss his incarceration, but confirmed that accounts from people close to him were accurate, saying: “I think it’s genuine. It’s all facts there.”

Details of Mr. Ai’s detention were recounted to The Wall Street Journal by people close to him soon after his release but on condition that they not be published, because of the artist’s concerns that he would be detained again.

Now, however, friends appear to have been given a green light to speak out by the artist, who has also since Monday resumed posting political messages on Twitter, despite saying previously that he had been ordered not to for a year after his release.

Asked why he now appeared to be violating his bail terms, Mr. Ai said: “I did what I think is necessary and I’ll take the consequences. I can’t be alive and not express my feelings.”

From Reuters:

“What you’re doing is illegal,” Ai told police officers at one point, according to the source. “They said: ‘Do you know before [former president] Liu Shaoqi died, he was holding the constitution…. Talk about illegality, there’s no difference between the country that we are in now and the time of the Cultural Revolution.”

Liu, a former president, was purged and died in prison during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when paramount leader Mao Zedong turned against his comrades in the name of radical upheaval ….

Police officers told Ai “you criticised the government, so we are going to let all society know that you’re an obscene person, you evaded taxes, you have two wives, we want to shame you. We’ll not use politics to deal with you,” the source said.

Evan Osnos cites this reference to Liu Shaoqi as a revealing glimpse of the mentality of Ai’s captors:

What is interesting about that passage is what it suggests about the men in the capillaries of China’s security system, an area so rarely illuminated. One often wonders how agents of force in the name of the state see their roles: Do they, for instance, picture themselves as the defenders of China’s fragile economic rise from the likes of rabble-rousers willing to risk national stability for some fanciful notions of individual rights? Or, rather, do they see their role in a darker light, as nothing but the muscles of an ailing patient, lashing out against the dying of the light?

It’s convenient to imagine one of the two. But from the sound of it, in this case they see themselves as something else and discomfiting: the members of a long national tradition, without beginning or end.

The Economist notes the mystery that still surrounds Ai’s sudden release, and lingering uncertainty about his future:

Four of Mr Ai’s associates who were detained at the same time appear to have suffered worse. Mr Ai only learned about their treatment after his release (he was not allowed to leave his cell except for trips to a lavatory, which he had to request, like everything else, by first saluting his guards). Two of them were kept handcuffed for many days. One suffered a heart attack.

The source says Mr Ai had been fully expecting to spend at least the next five years in prison and was shocked by his release. This has also puzzled many observers. It is possible that China was getting worried about the international outcry over Mr Ai’s case. But foreign criticism of China’s human-rights record, especially in recent months, during which Chinese leaders have been especially anxious to crush dissent in order to prevent an Arab-Spring-style uprising, has rarely proven so rapidly effective. It is also possible that Chinese leaders were divided over how to treat Mr Ai given the party’s reverence of his father. In another unexpected development, the authorities in the south-western province of Sichuan released an activist, Ran Yunfei, who had been detained in February and accused of subversion, a crime that often incurs a lengthy jail term. Mr Ai, in his recent Twitter postings, had been calling for Mr Ran to be set free.

It is unclear how the authorities will respond to Mr Ai’s return to online campaigning. The source said Mr Ai was expecting the police, who frequently visit him at his studio in north-eastern Beijing, to raise objections to his twittering. But he said Mr Ai felt he had no choice given the way colleagues had suffered because of their links with him. It remains unclear whether the authorities will allow him to take up a teaching post in Berlin which he recently accepted. He is followed everywhere, the source says, with agents even hiding behind trees when he takes his son to the park. The police have made it clear, however, that he should focus more on his art.

Sources:

Chinese Artist Confirms Details Of Detention – NYTimes.com
Chinese Artist Challenges Beijing Again – WSJ.com
Ai Weiwei endured immense pressure in detention: source – Reuters
Letter from China: Ai Weiwei: “We Want to Shame You” – The New Yorker
Ai Weiwei: In and out of jail – The Economist