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Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei 誰在害怕艾未未

The third anniversary of the Sichuan Earthquake had barely just passed, the Chinese government is already gearing up for the 22nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In a few months there will be the centennial celebration of the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命), the anti-government campaign led by Sun Yat-sen in 1911 that eventually brought down Imperial China. 

With a calendar peppered with politically sensitive days, Beijing these days is finding it increasingly challenging to run an authoritarian regime. But it gets worse: the Arab Spring that swept across the Middle East is threatening to spread through Inner Mongolia all the way to the capital city. To nip the jasmine in the bud, the central government mobilized local authorities to lock up dissidents, disperse public gatherings and intercept Internet search engines. Flower markets in major cities are forbidden from selling jasmine altogether. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times called the latest turn of events in China the “harshest clampdown since… 1989.”

Nipping protests in the bud

When put in this context, the arrest of Ai Weiwei (艾未未) at the Beijing Airport two months ago seems to make perfect sense. The rotund, 53-year-old artist-provocateur joined a long line of social activists who succumbed to their government’s newest weapon: detention and disappearance. One moment Ai was blogging merrily away in his living room, the next moment he was taken by plain clothes police to an undisclosed location and held there for weeks without access to a lawyer or contact with the outside world. 

The extrajudicial punishment cuts through the legal red tape and saves authorities the trouble of getting an arrest warrant. Ai might have been Beijing’s darling once upon a time – he was handpicked for a role in the design of the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics – but when he sided with the quake victims in Sichuan and stuck his nose in places where it didn’t belong, he crossed the line from eccentric artist to trouble-making nuisance. Ai Weiwei’s reckoning was not a matter of if but when.

Ai, ever the provocateur

The rest of the story is supposed to follow a tight script. Ai is charged with “inciting subversion of state power” (煽動顛覆國家政權) or perhaps the less serious “inciting social disorder” (尋釁滋事), two of the catch-all crimes that entered the revised penal code in 1997. Any one of Ai’s provocative art installations would have been enough evidence for those vaguely-worded offenses. A sham trial is then hastily staged, before a unanimous bench of judges sentence him to five or ten years in some faraway prison. Add another nine months if Western diplomats show up outside the courtroom or if the White House turns up the human rights rhetoric. 

The path of a fallen dissident from arrest to imprisonment is so well trotted that even a fifth grader in Hong Kong can regurgitate it on his social studies exam. But therein lies the mystery about the case of Ai Weiwei: none of that has happened. Two months after he was taken away by authorities, the artist is yet to be formally charged with any crime. There were talks of tax evasion and other “economic crimes” and even rumors about bigamy and possession of pornography. Nevertheless, in an unprecedented show of indecision, government authorities sat on their hands for more than eight weeks, leaving the detainee’s family and the rest of world scratching their heads and wondering what really is going on.

Liu. the other famous political prisoner

The Western press is quick to supply an explanation based on their one-dimensional understanding of the New China. To the West, the arrest of Ai Weiwei is a clear sign that China is worried about becoming the next Egypt or Tunisia. Sending a world renowned artist to prison, argue the American think tanks, would cost Beijing too much political capital: soured trade relationships, a diplomatic tit-for-tat or simply a bad rap. It would be a price too high for a country on its rise to the world’s stage. The Nicholas Kristofs of the world might have written something along those lines.

Trouble is: China already is on the world’s stage and grumbling from the White House and Downing Street is nothing but white noise. If Beijing was willing to take the heat for locking up Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, for co-authoring the incendiary Chapter ’08 manifesto (零八憲章), it certainly isn’t worried about a little flak for crushing a rascal like Ai Weiwei, whose social concerns have been largely parochial – the cover-ups of shoddy school construction in a couple of tiny Sichuan villages. 

In fact, for decades Ai has been carefully toeing the line between acceptable artistic expressions and unacceptable political advocacy. Though many of his recent artworks deal with subject matters such as corruption and social injustice, Ai has by-and-large stayed clear of real pressure points like constitutional reform and political pluralism. Contrary to popular (and mostly Western) belief, China is not afraid of Ai Weiwei.

These signs are all over Hong Kong this week

A more plausible explanation for the authorities’ hesitation to bring charges against the artist lies in a simple interview given by his mother. Shortly after the April arrest, Gao Ying (高瑛) told reporters that she was bewildered by her son’s arrest because President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) had once made a promise to grant her family protection from political harassment. Gao’s husband and Ai’s father, Ai Qing (艾青), was one of the greatest poets and best known intellectuals in 20th Century China. 

Although Ai Senior was purged and exiled in the 1950s, he was eventually reinstated and honored by the Politburo. It is not surprising that President Hu would offer the prominent family certain privileges and immunity. But in much the same way the mafia underworld is beset by infighting among rival factions, the arrest of a citizen declared off-limits by the Paramount Leader is an open challenge to his authority. 

Indeed, President Hu has been on the hot seat for doing little to combat widespread corruption, persistent inflation and soaring property prices, all of which have weakened his grip on power in the dog-eat-dog world of Chinese politics. The power struggle is further exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding the impending transfer of power in 2012, as the Fourth Generation of Chinese leadership is widely expected to pass the baton to current Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平).

Ai Qing

In the end, the arrest of Ai Weiwei may have little to do with the Jasmine Revolution and the resulting crackdown on free speech, but much more to do with a political tug-of-war in the lead up to a power handover. The will-they-won’t-they suspense in the indictment of Ai Weiwei has exposed the widening cracks in China’s ruling establishment. 

If the artist is a mere pawn in the high-stake factional struggle in Beijing, then his fate in the coming weeks would tell us which way the political wind is blowing. Until the dust settles and a victor emerges, no amount of graffiti and light projections would be enough to get China’s most famous artist released from wherever he is.

K. Ng contributed research.

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