China artist’s detention tests depth of crackdown

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s detention of internationally acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei has provoked a petition urging his release, exposing growing alarm among the country’s liberal intellectuals who see him as a test of how far a wave of detentions to stifle dissent could go.

As of Tuesday, Chinese officials had yet to comment on the fate of Ai, who was stopped on Sunday from boarding a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong and then taken away by border police. But there is scant doubt he has joined a growing list of dissidents and activists in detention or informal custody.

Ai remained out of contact; his mobile phone was off.

His wife, Lu Qing, told Reuters that police would not give her any information and his detention appeared much more serious that his past run-ins with the government.

“This time it’s extremely serious,” she said.

“They searched his studio and took discs and hard drives and all kinds of stuff, but the police haven’t told us where he is or what they’re after. There’s no information about him.”

The disappearance of Ai, a burly, bearded 53-year-old with a wide following in avant garde art circles, drew condemnation from Western countries. They have also denounced China’s growing use of extra-judicial detentions against dissidents who the ruling Communist Party fears could spread calls for protests inspired by Middle Eastern uprisings.

On Tuesday, the United States embassy and the European Union delegation in Beijing repeated those calls in Internet and email statements, illustrating how Ai’s case could escalate into a diplomatic row.

Chinese activists are also increasingly alarmed about Ai’s extended detention, and supporters in China and abroad launched their own online drive urging authorities to free him.

“Today, every one of us could become an Ai Weiwei,” Ai Xiaoming, an academic and documentary-maker in southern China, who is no relative of Ai Weiwei, wrote in an essay about the petition that circulated on overseas Chinese internet sites.

“What I meant was that Ai Weiwei is an artist, so he has more prominence than many others, but there are many other people facing the same situation,” she said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

“But I also meant that we can all also try to act like Ai Weiwei and speak out.”

DOZENS IN DETENTION

Dozens of Chinese activists are already in detention, and at least three have been formally arrested on subversion charges often used to jail dissidents.

The detention of Ai, who has been somewhat protected by his international prominence and by being the son of a famed Communist poet, suggested the Party was narrowing the boundaries of what criticism it will tolerate, they said.

Ai is one of China’s most famous contemporary artists. His career spans protests for artistic freedom in 1979, provocative works in the 1990s, and a hand in designing the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“The Party has unilaterally torn up the rules of the game. Before now there was a clearer sense of what could be said and when they (the authorities) would stop it or arrest people,” said one prominent journalist, who requested anonymity, citing fear of losing his job.

He and others said leaders’ worries about spillover from the Middle East unrest was compounding the jitters that usually accompany the run-up to a political succession, with President Hu Jintao due to retire as Party chief late in 2012.

Ai Xiaoming, the documentary maker, likened the intent behind the crackdown on dissent to the armed suppression of pro-democracy protests in Beijing in June 1989.

“They may perhaps think about 1989 and how killing that many people made for 20 years of stability,” she said.

“Now they don’t need to kill people, but by detaining people willing to speak out, they think they can snuff out criticism for a long time.”

The online petition to “free Ai Weiwei” was launched on a Twitter microblog site (http://twitition.com/ao9m7), which China’s wall of Internet censorship stops most Chinese from seeing. Inquiries about Ai on China’s most popular homegrown micoblogging site, Sina.com’s “Weibo,” are blocked.

But many activists in Beijing and elsewhere have followed the case by surmounting Internet censorship or by word of mouth.

“Ai Weiwei is a famous artist. For the police to take these measures against him, they must have done detailed investigations,” Liu Xiaoyuan, a Beijing-based human rights lawyer, told Reuters.

“I hope he doesn’t have to face trial or be jailed,” he said. “But sometimes the things you don’t wish to happen could happen.”

(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Andrew Marshall)

China artist’s detention tests depth of crackdown