Beijing's silence an ominous signal
Will Clem in Shanghai and Choi Chi-yuk
As international pressure mounts for the release of the mainland's most famous artist-activist Ai Weiwei, Beijing's failure to respond sends an ominous signal to the country's other dissidents and liberal scholars who fear further tightening of political controls.
The United States, France, Germany, Britain, the European Union and Australia joined Amnesty International and other rights groups in expressing concern and calling for the release of Ai, who has not been seen since Sunday morning when he was stopped from boarding a flight to Hong Kong by border police at Beijing Capital International Airport.
Ai's wife, Lu Qing, said yesterday that his whereabouts remained unclear, more than 48 hours after he disappeared. 'Up to this moment I have not received any news about him at all,' she said. 'I am now exceedingly worried, particularly as his physical health is really not good. He has high blood pressure and diabetes.'
The level of concern was highlighted by tainted-milk activist Zhao Lianhai breaking his silence since being released on medical parole late last year. In a Twitter account used by Zhao before his arrest, messages resurfaced late last night criticising the authorities for arresting dissidents. He said he and his family have been living under intense pressure.
An officer at the Beijing police bureau said yesterday afternoon they had not heard of Ai's case.
Analysts and other activists said the artist's detention marked a shift in the government's tactics as the 53-year-old outspoken critic had been previously widely thought to be untouchable due to his international standing.
'Ai Weiwei's detention is definitely a turning point in the ongoing crackdown because the arrest of someone of the stature of Ai could only have been carried out with approval of someone in the top leadership,' said Nicholas Bequelin from Human Rights Watch. 'It is designed to send a signal that no matter how prominent you are, the police can arrest you at any time they choose.'
The latest and most high-profile detention in recent weeks represents 'a broad effort to redefine the limits of dissent and criticism of the government, which has grown considerably thanks to the internet and the communication and information revolution of the past few years. As a result, the authorities are going after the most outspoken critics across the board: lawyers, rights activists, NGOs, journalists and artists'.
Beijing was trying to 'roll back the progress made by Chinese civil society over the past decade', he said.
Famed painter Chen Danqing, a close friend of Ai's, said that although the detention was no surprise it showed the authorities were becoming more brazen in suppression of dissent.
'They were going to do this sooner or later,' he said. 'But the way they did it was different from before. This shows that they [the government] don't care about their international image any more.'
Amnesty International on its website described Ai's detention as a stepping-up of a clampdown on activists in response to North African-inspired so-called jasmine protests over the past month.
Sam Zarifi, Amnesty's director for the Asia-Pacific region, said: 'Ai Weiwei was not even involved in any call for jasmine protests.
'There seems to be no reason whatsoever for his detention, other than that the authorities are trying to broadcast the message that China's time for open dissent has come to an end.'
Chen Ziming, who was sentenced to 13 years in jail as one of 'the black hands' behind the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement, said the authorities were using the jasmine crackdown as an excuse to round up 'all those people who have been causing them a headache for a long time'.