Detained Artist Ai Weiwei Under Investigation for “Economic Crimes”

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The Chinese authorities are interviewing detained artist and activist Ai Weiwei for “economic crimes,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Thursday. The comments, at a regularly scheduled afternoon press conference, are the first official acknowledgment that Ai, who was detained on Sunday while trying to fly to Hong Kong, is under investigation. Beijing police have thus far not commented on his case. Xinhua, China’s state-run news service, posted a one-line story around midnight Wednesday stating the Ai was under investigation for economic crimes, then removed the item. There is still no official word on Wen Tao, an associate of Ai’s who was also detained Sunday.

In recent years some activists and government critics have been targeted with accusations of financial wrongdoing. Wu Lihong, an environmental activist who campaigns against the pollution of Lake Tai in eastern China, was sentenced to three years in prison in 2007 for extortion, a charge he says was trumped up by local authorities. That same year Guo Feixiong, a legal rights activist, was sentenced to five years in prison for “illegal business activity” in connection with a book he wrote about a political scandal in northeast China. And in 2009 Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer, was investigated for tax evasion, and the Open Constitution Initiative, a legal rights organization he helped found, was forced to pay a $200,000 fine.

After Ai was detained some supporters feared he could face a charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, is serving an 11-year sentence for inciting subversion. Three activists arrested in the latest crackdown—Ran Yunfei, Chen Wei and Ding Mao—are under investigation in Sichuan for inciting subversion, and Liu Xianbin, who was arrested last year, was convicted and sentenced to a 10-year prison term for the same crime. By saying Ai is suspected of financial crimes, the authorities make his case appear less political. That may be an attempt to shield the government from accusations it is going after the artist solely for his activism, like organizing an investigation into the deaths of children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. “They may not actually know how they’ll proceed with Ai’s case yet,” says Joshua Rosenzweig, Hong Kong-based senior manager for the Dui Hua Foundation, a human right group. “One thing is certain, though: saying he’s suspected of economic crimes is intended to defuse critics who’ll want to frame this as a politically motivated prosecution.  When governments, NGOs, or journalists refer to Ai’s case as a human rights issue, the Chinese will accuse them of twisting the facts and try to portray this as another instance of the West attacking China”

On Wednesday Jon Huntsman, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to China, raised Ai’s case in a farewell speech in Shanghai. Huntsman, who is leaving to possibly pursuing the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, said future ambassadors will continue to speak up for social activists “who challenge the Chinese government to serve the public in all cases and at all times.”