Arrest of Prominent Chinese Artist Tests Depth of Crackdown

Ai Weiwei joins the ranks of those accused of "subversion" by the Chinese government (Creative Commons).

The phrase “Chinese government crackdown” continues to make major headlines.

Whether it’s the censorship of key words like “jasmine” on the Internet, the swift termination of protests by Chinese security forces or the arrests of anti-government bloggers, China has clamped down on those considered threats to the government in 2011.

As I wrote last week, at least 100 anti-government activists have been arrested since February. With that said, it would be completely irresponsible not to talk about the arrest of Ai Weiwei, a internationally acclaimed Chinese artist, on Sunday.

Ai was apprehended when boarding a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong and has since not been heard from. And like all those being held in under similar conditions, Ai is being accused of “inciting subversion,” a phrase analogous to treason in China.

Mark Toner, a U.S. State Dept. spokesman, said the U.S. was “deeply concerned by the trend of forced disappearances, extralegal detentions, arrests and convictions of human rights activists for exercising their internationally recognized human right for freedom of expression.”

And it’s not just the U.S. that has publicly condemned the arrest.

The nations of Great Britain, France and Germany all came out with statements Monday, calling on the Chinese government to release Ai.

Look, it’s a known fact that the Chinese government maintains a strict censorship policy, acting quickly and forcefully to stymie anti-government sentiment before it flowers into something bigger. But Ai was not just some pro-democracy blogger or an anti-government activist who’s seen the inside of a Chinese jail cell far too many times.

He is one of the nation’s most famous artists and a prominent human rights activist.

When the Chinese government refused to publicize the names of the scores of children killed in the tragic Szechuan earthquake, Ai spurred a citizen’s petition to have the names released.

When the Chinese government installed surveillance cameras in front of his home, he didn’t organize a petition or seek to destroy it; he simply sculpted replicas of the cameras for the sake of art.

PBS Newshour recently did a fantastic piece on Ai Weiwei. Part of the piece can be viewed here.

So here’s the real question: Where will it stop?

Will the Chinese government continue to arrest at will?

Are they going to start rounding up every intellectual, much like the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot in the late 1970s? During Pot’s reign, the persecution became so intense that even those with glasses were apprehended and later massacred to feed his desire for an “agrarian utopia” in Cambodia.

Let’s hope the international community continues to put pressure on China when the world’s best artists are arrested without legitimate charges.

About bmgottli

Benjamin Gottlieb is an investigative reporter, photographer and multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Growing up alongside highway 101 in Sherman Oaks, California, Gottlieb got his start in journalism as the assistant editor of his high school publication, the Knightly Times. Gottlieb received his B.A. in Global and International Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2009, with an emphasis on Middle Eastern socioeconomics and politics, and a minor in Multimedia Writing. During his time at UC Santa Barbara, Gottlieb spent three years as a staff reporter and news editor for his school’s daily newspaper, the Daily Nexus. Gottlieb took First Place for Best Feature Story of 2007 in the California College Media Awards for his piece detailing a weekend with the school’s Army Reserve Officer’s Training Corps. Gottlieb has interned at both the Santa Barbara Daily Sound and the award-winning alternative weekly, the Santa Barbara Independent. He remains a contributing writer for the Independent, and has published pieces on offshore drilling, prison reform and the 2009 California budget crisis. Gottlieb is currently a Director’s Scholar at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, pursuing a Masters of Arts in Online Journalism. He is also the senior news editor for USC Annenberg Digital News, a reporter for USC Annenberg Radio News and contributes to through the One Square Mile project, an experiment in hyper-local reporting.
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