Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ai Weiwei Detained: “They can’t take different viewpoints”

Chinese artist, writer and documentary filmmaker Ai Weiwei - detained in Beijing on Sunday while trying to leave for Hong Kong.

It's been a long time since I've posted as I've been in the midst of a move from China back to my home in Australia. Before the big move I spent several weeks traveling around China, including meetings with several filmmakers and a stop at the Hong Kong Film Festival. More on all that in coming posts. Right now here's some news that can't wait.

On Sunday, April 3 prominent artist, filmmaker and outspoken critic of the Chinese government Ai Weiwei “was taken from Beijing’s airport by security agents as he was about to board a flight to Hong Kong” reports the Washington Post. “Police later raided his studio” according to the same report. It seems eight of Ai's assistants and his wife Lu Qing were detained after the studio raid.

Two days on Ai has still not been heard from. Several foreign governments have called for his release according to the UK Guardian this morning. It's not clear if any of his assistants are still being held. Nothing has been posted on Ai Weiwei's Twitter account since Sunday.

You can view a PBS News Hour clip about the arrest here.

Giving the finger to Tiananmen - Ai Weiwei's Study in Perspective (1995).

Ai Weiwei's detention comes amidst the worst crackdown on activists, writers, lawyers and artists in China for years. Reports regarding the exact number detained in recent months vary, but the China Human Rights Defenders site 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 same article features a map - seen below - detailing the names and locations of those in detention. I have also personally heard of one more individual in detention in Yunnan who does not appear to be the CHRD list. Click on the map below to see a larger version.

Last week the Chinese-born Australian writer and blogger Yang Hengjun was arbitrarily detained for several days in Guangzhou, as was widely reported in the Australian press.

Pressure has also increased on those who have not been detained, as I experienced on my recent travels around China. On March 18 I visited Sun Yat-sen University (Zhongshan Daxue) in Guangzhou to interview documentary filmmaker Ai Xiaoming. After meeting Ai on campus, she led me and my translator back to her apartment, but we were intercepted by a plain-clothed security man outside her complex. He was quickly joined by two other men and one woman. They demanded to know the identity of me and my translator, and what we were planning to do in Ai's home.

After a short discussion Ai persuaded them to let me and my translator leave in exchange for her accompanying the plain-clothed personnel to the campus security office (Baowei Chu). My translator and I were followed by other plain-clothed men back to the subway. Over the next hour we managed to shake them in a rather ridiculous game of hide and seek on the underground. At no point did any of the men and one woman involved in the incident identify themselves or offer any form of identification.

Ai Xiaoming later contacted me in Hong Kong via email and stated she suspected her phone was tapped and her email account had been hacked. Our experience shows her apartment is under surveillance, although she claims she was unaware of this until the incident on March 18. Another foreign academic I met in Hong Kong confirmed that she has previously been able to visit Ai's apartment unimpeded.

In Hong Kong another Chinese filmmaker who I'll refrain from naming told us that while he was away from his studio on the mainland, security personnel had visited and informed an assistant that any foreign visitors must henceforth be cleared a month in advance with the local security office. No foreigners are permitted to visit the studio without prior permission.

Clearly the Chinese authorities have been deeply spooked by what has been happening in North Africa and the Middle East, despite the fact that calls for “Jasmine Revolution”-style protests on the mainland have attracted little direct support, as I reported for New Matilda back in February.

These latest developments are deeply concerning and carry serious implications for the country's independent film sector, which for two decades has largely been tolerated, even as “official” TV and cinema content continues to be heavily censored.

Fingers crossed Ai Weiwei and the many others in detention are released soon. If you're unfamiliar with Ai's work and activities, check out this detailed interview that appeared in the March issue of Time Out Hong Kong. In the article Ai pertinently asks:

"How can a government after 60 years in control be unable to take even a small slight? They can’t take opinions. They can’t take different viewpoints. They are going further and further in the opposite direction of democracy.”

The events of recent weeks have only confirmed Ai Weiwei's bleak assessment of China's rulers.

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