Anyone who closely follows events in China has long had reason to be sceptical of the Communist Party’s claims it is moving towards democracy and the rule of law, but the brazen abuses of power to silence critics over the past two months have been sobering even by the standards of the People’s Republic.
Reports on the numbers of those arrested or "disappeared" vary, but the China Human Rights Defender website claims, "the Chinese government has criminally detained a total of 26 individuals, disappeared more than 30, and put more than 200 under soft detention since mid-February after anonymous calls for ‘Jasmine Revolution’ protests first appeared online." The claim is supported by a map detailing the names and locations of those detained.
Calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" in China first appeared on the US-based Chinese language website Boxun.com on 19 February, but as I reported for New Matilda then, the call appeared to attract little direct support within China itself. After a reasonably measured response to the first small gatherings that occurred, authorities rapidly escalated their attempts to contain the perceived threat by rounding up many known activists.
Even in that tense environment, however, the arrest of China’s best known contemporary artist Ai Weiwei has shocked many. Ai was taken from Beijing Capital International Airport on Sunday 3 April as he attempted to board a flight for Hong Kong. Although he has long been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, Ai’s domestic and international profile led many to think he was unlikely to suffer the harsh treatment dealt out to many lesser-known opponents of the regime. In the words of The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones on Monday, Ai’s arrest has been interpreted as an attempt to "stamp out the idea that any individual is greater than the law of the state".
The "law" in this case — as in many others — is proving very flexible, since Ai has not been formally charged and none of his friends or family, including his wife and mother, are aware of his current whereabouts. Ai’s Twitter account has been silent since a raid on his Beijing studio the same day as his arrest.
Although Ai Weiwei appears to be the first creative figure arrested in the present crackdown, others have certainly been facing increased pressure. On 18 March, for example, I visited Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou to interview the academic and documentary filmmaker Ai Xiaoming (no relation to Ai Weiwei). A translator and I met Ai Xiaoming on campus at around 4.40pm, and she led us to her nearby apartment. On the way she mentioned she had recently been questioned by security personnel about the "Jasmine Revolution" and that a friend in the Chinese city of Dali had disappeared after forwarding the call to protest from his mobile phone.
As we approached Ai Xiaoming’s residential complex less than five minutes after meeting her, we were intercepted by a man — presumably a plain-clothed security officer — who addressed Ai Xiaoming by name and asked what we were doing. Our questioner was joined a few moments later by another man and a woman, while two other men stood watching a few metres away. None of the group were uniformed or offered any form of identification. The first man informed Ai Xiaoming that we needed to accompany him to the campus security office (Bao wei chu), as the woman asked my translator and I our names, occupations and places of origin. We had not violated any laws and no reason was given for the request to visit their office.
Ai Xiaoming agreed to accompany the "officers" if they let my translator and I go. As the first officer deliberated with someone via his mobile phone, my companion and I made a hurried exit. Two additional plain-clothed personnel watched as we passed the spot where we had met Ai, and another pair followed us as we entered the nearby subway station. Over the next hour we engaged in a rather ridiculous game of hide and seek on the underground to shake those tailing us before returning to our hotel.
Ai Xiaoming later contacted me in Hong Kong via email and stated she suspects her phone is tapped and her email account has been hacked. Our experience shows her apartment is certainly under surveillance, although she says she was unaware of this until the incident on 18 March. In 2010 I spent a day with Ai Xiaoming in Beijing without experiencing any problems. A foreign academic I met in Hong Kong a few days after the incident in Guangzhou confirmed that she had previously been able to visit Ai’s apartment unimpeded.
While in Hong Kong, another well-known Chinese filmmaker who has asked not to be named informed me that security personnel had recently visited his mainland studio and told an assistant that any foreign visitors must henceforth be approved a month in advance with the local security office. Foreigners are no longer permitted to visit his studio without approval.
Chinese-born figures have found that holding foreign passports does not necessarily protect them, as the Australian national Yang Hengjun discovered when he also disappeared in the city of Guangzhou on 27 March. The novelist and political commentator resurfaced the following weekend, claiming he had been sick, and was allowed to leave the mainland via Hong Kong. He declined to speak further on the experience, telling The Age, "I can’t keep having media attention and continue my pursuit of democracy in China … The more questions I answer outside China, then the less I can do inside."
Although certain filmmakers and artists have long been under surveillance and subject to phone taps, since the 1980s it has been rare for Chinese authorities to physically prevent artists meeting with foreigners. It is a disturbing development that the kinds of restrictions that more radical political activists have long endured are now being extended to established creative figures — and it is a major setback to China’s still nascent civil society.
It is unclear at this stage whether the present phase represents a longer-term hardening in the government’s attitude or is simply a panicked, typically heavy-handed response to events in North Africa and the Middle East. Either way, it’s a sobering reminder of the immense arbitrary power wielded by China’s ruling party — and their continued willingness to use that power to imprison and isolate anyone they regard as a threat.
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