Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei was detained at Beijing airport while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong on April 3. The artist’s wife, assistants, friends, family members and associates were also subsequently detained and interrogated. But Ai himself continues to be held at unknown location. China’s Foreign Ministry said only that he is being investigated for unspecified “economic crimes” and that his detention has “nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression.” The detention has nonetheless sparked global protests. In London, supporters gathered at the Tate Modern museum on April 11, and climbed into Ai’s “Sunflower Seeds” installation—an exhibit of 136 tons of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds—and scattered posters bearing the message: “Free Ai Weiwei.” (CBC, April 11)
Two days before Ai’s disappearance, he spoke out about police harassment at his Beijing studio, and presciently warned that “people with different minds and voices are being thrown into prison.” He told the German broadcaster ARD in his last interview before his detainment: “There are two surveillance cameras at my gate entrance, my phone is tapped and every message I send on my microblog is censored. Yesterday and the day before over a dozen police came to my place, but in my opinion, it is purely nuisance. They are coming again today.”
“China in many ways is just like the middle ages,” he said. “China’s control over people’s minds and the flow of information is just like the time before the Enlightenment. Writers, artists, and commentators on websites are detained or thrown into jail when they reflect on democracy, opening up, reform and reason. This is the reality of China.” (The Guardian, April 11)
China’s official state news agency, Xinhua, published a one-line story April 7 saying police were investigating the 53-year-old artist—but deleted it from its website within one hour. The piece did not explicitly state that Ai is being held, and authorities have not responded to faxed queries from the foreign media.
Ai’s older sister, Gao Ge, told Reuters: “The economic crimes report is absurd, because the way he was taken and then disappeared shows it’s nothing of the sort. This is more like a crime gang’s behaviour than a country with laws.” His mother, Gao Ying, said the “economic crimes” allegations were being used to silence him. “If he’s not released, this will be the start of a long struggle… They still haven’t notified us why he was taken or where he is.” (The Guardian, April 7)
Ai’s detainment follows his release on the Internet of a satirical drawing, according to The Australian of April 11. The drawing (not shown in the account) is said to depict the artist naked “except for a toy horse concealing his genitals.” (We will attempt to shed some light on this enigmatic imagery below.) The account said the drawing’s caption had a double meaning in Chinese, which can apparently be interpreted as: “Fuck your mother, the party central committee.” If this is true, we can imagine the party central committee was not pleased. In one of the few comments on his case, an official party newspaper is quoted as saying: “The law will not be bent for mavericks. Ai Weiwei always likes walking on the edge of the law and doing things others dare not.”
An undated post from sometime last year on the dissident English-language Beijing Doll website (perhaps produced by Chinese ex-pats or liberal China-watchers abroad) sheds some light on the case. First some basic background:
Born in Beijing, his father was Chinese poet Ai Qing, who was denounced during the Cultural Revolution and sent off to a labor camp in Xinjiang with his wife, Gao Ying. Ai Weiwei also spent five years there. Now, according to Chinese authorities, he is a dissident to be watched, one whose inflammatory blog needed to be silenced. But to others, the Chinese conceptual artist, architect, photographer, and curator—loathed and loved for his human rights activism—is the courageous voice needed in today’s repressive China. Ai Weiwei is a hero.
The post informs us that on June 4 last year—21st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre— he posted the following message:
Let us forget about June 4th, forget this ordinary day. Life has taught us, under totalitarianism, every day is the same. Every day in a totalitarian society is one day, there is no “other day”, no “yesterday” or “tomorrow”…
Without freedom of speech, without freedom of news, without freedom of elections, we are not people, we do not need to remember. Lacking the right to remember, we choose to forget.
Let us forget every instance of persecution, every instance of humiliation; every massacre and every cover-up, every lie, every time we are pushed down, every death. Forget every moment of suffering, then forget every moment of forgetting…
Forget those soldiers who fired on civilians, those students whose bodies were crushed by the treads of tanks, the whistle and scream of bullets and blood on [the] streets and in the alleyways… Forget the interminable lies, the rulers hoping everyone has forgotten, forget their coward[ice], their evil and ineptitude. We must forget, for they must be forgotten. Only when they’ve been forgotten can we exist. For the sake of existing, let us forget.
Several days later, we are told, he posted actual photos of himself nude—except for a stuffed toy of the “Grass Mud Horse,” symbol of resistance to Internet censors, covering his genitals. (The Beijing Doll post does include one of these photos.)
OK, so why has the Grass Mud Horse, a mythical creature from Chinese folklore, become the symbol of resistance to censorship? The New York Times informed us on March 11, 2009 that it is a “dirty pun”—because the creature’s name in Chinese “sounds very much like an especially vile obscenity.” The less squeamish Global Voices Online states that Grass Mud Horse （草泥馬） “is phonetically equivalent to ‘Fxxk Your Mother!'”
So perhaps this epithet was not the “caption” of the drawing that got Ai Weiwei arrested, but was more subtly conveyed by the image itself. But we can’t check to see for ourselves. The artist’s website, Aiweiwei.com, does seem to still be online—but it is almost entirely devoid of content. One link to a blank page coyly reads (in English) “Fake Editorial”—which may be a way of protesting the censorship of content while still getting around the censors.
Beijing has considerably turned up the pressure on dissidents since Internet calls were issued for “Jasmine” protests in China in the wake of the Arab protest movements. The New York-based New Tang Dynasty TV reported March 31 that activists Chen Wei, Ran Yunfei, and Ding Mao of Sichuan Province have all been charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” apparently in connection with the Internet call. The group China Human Rights Defenders has now documented at least 26 cases of dissidents criminally detained since mid-February, with a further 30 listed as “disappeared.” (As we write, the CHRD website is mysteriously down, although it is cached by Google.)