Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and political activist who was detained Sunday at the Beijing airport while trying to fly to Hong Kong, has been blocked from leaving the country before. He was prevented from flying to South Korea in December, shortly before the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Ai has been detained before, too, including once two years ago in Chengdu, when a cop hit him so hard he later required cranial surgery in Germany. And he was put under house arrest in Beijing last fall to prevent him to traveling to Shanghai for a party at his studio there, which was soon to be demolished by authorities.
So it is tempting to view his latest run-in with the authorities as another day in the life of Ai Weiwei. He is a large and somewhat larger-than-life figure who gives morning interviews denouncing the Chinese government, then spends his afternoons directing his studio in the production of works of art that have made him internationally famous. And he tweets incessantly, which has made him a hero to many young, Internet-savvy Chinese, some who even call him “Ai Shen,” or God Ai. His work has long had a political side. He went on a hunger strike in 1989 while working in New York to support the student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. His photo 1995-2003 photo series “Study of Perspective” showed him giving a middle finger to cultural and political power centers including Tiananmen and the White House. His politics gained a more coherent focus after he began blogging in 2006, and especially after the 2008 in Sichuan, where thousands of students died in collapsed schools. He later organized a campaign to document the student deaths, and produced a work of thousands of backpacks to memorialize the young children who died.
It was always believed that Ai’s renown, both as an artist and as son of Ai Qing, a poet whose works are widely known in China, gave him a measure of protection. It might not save him from a Sichuan cop’s punch, but it could protect him from prolonged detention. Now, the broader crackdown that has been touched off by the anonymous online call for a Tunisian-style “jasmine revolution” has changed that reasoning. Over the past several weeks 26 people have been detained, more than 30 disappeared and 200 put under house arrest, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an activist group. A half-dozen of China’s most prominent lawyers known for handling civil rights cases are being held incommunicado. Liu Xianbin, an activist who was arrested last year, was sentenced on March 25 to 10 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” Three activists and writers in Sichuan, Ran Yunfei, Chen Wei and Ding Mao, have now been formally arrested on inciting subversion charges. Also, the Chinese-Australian spy novelist and online commentator Yang Hengjun briefly disappeared while in Guangzhou last week, touching of concerns that he too had been detained. He later gave interviews saying he had merely been sick in the hospital, but many feel that he has been unable to completely describe his fate while still in China.
The recent crackdown is the harshest in at least a decade, but Ai’s detention takes it to a new extreme. His Beijing studio was also raided Sunday and several staff members interviewed, indicating that his airport detention was more than a mere travel ban. He is, with the exception of imprisoned Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, China’s most prominent dissident. His prominence owes itself to the fact that as a leading artist, he would be globally recognized even without his activism. And for so long that had also been a shield. By holding him, the Chinese authorities are reminding the nation that no challenger to the rule of the Communist Party should feel safe.