No softening of Beijing's tough line on activists
Maverick artist Ai Weiwei's release does not signal a softening of the central government's tough line on critics - instead, it shows how Beijing's use of arbitrary detention has intimidated many of them into silence, analysts said yesterday.
Scholars and rights groups expressed concern about the political nature of Ai's arrest and the way he appeared to have been coerced into making a confession to secure his release.
Analysts said the release of Ai - the co-designer of Beijing's landmark Olympic stadium, dubbed the 'Bird's Nest' - may have been a calculated move to coincide with Premier Wen Jiabao's five-day trip to Hungary, Britain and Germany, which starts today.
There was mounting pressure on the government from the international community to release Ai, who had been detained since April 3. Last month, European politicians visiting Beijing brought up Ai's case and warned that relations with China would be jeopardised if it did not improve its human rights situation.
'His arrest has become a big embarrassment for China,' said Dr Jean Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Baptist University.
But even with what appears to be a concession to appease the West, Beijing had already achieved its goal of silencing Ai, one of its most vociferous critics, rights groups said.
Ai angered authorities by launching an independent investigation into the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and collecting details on more than 5,000 children killed when school buildings collapsed. He also compiled a list of 60 victims who died as a result of an apartment block blaze in Shanghai last year.
Ai and most of the dozens of activists, rights lawyers and writers who were arbitrarily detained in the past six months had 'retreated into uncharacteristic silence and seclusion' upon their release, Human Rights Watch said.
Ai, who never used to mince words in his criticism of the government, yesterday said little more than he was 'happy to return home'.
'I cannot be interviewed ... due to my current circumstance,' he said.
Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that Ai's release did not mean the government was easing up on its crackdown.
'We're still at a high point of the repression against critics and rights activists in China. The government has achieved its aim ... that is to send a message that the authorities can arrest anyone at any point. His arrest was arbitrary, his detention was arbitrary and his release is arbitrary.'
Chinese-law expert Professor Jerome Cohen of New York University said although the announcement about Ai's release in state media claimed that Ai had 'confessed his crimes', no formal charge had ever been brought against him, and he had apparently not pleaded guilty to any crime. He said Ai's release had 'nothing to do with the rule of law'.
Police said in May Ai was being investigated on suspicion of tax evasion and destroying business records.
Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political scientist at City University, said Ai's case shows that Beijing has a strategy to deal with people it considers troublemakers. 'The way to handle these celebrated dissidents ... is to exert pressure on them so they agree to remain silent, and then they are released,' Cheng said. 'And obviously the pressure works ... because you have to worry about your wife and your young kids.'
Amnesty International urged the international community not to forget about lesser known activists still being detained. 'It is vital that the international outcry over Ai Weiwei be extended to those activists still languishing in secret detention or charged with inciting subversion,' said Catherine Baber, the group's deputy director for the Asia-Pacific region. The group said Ai was one of more than 130 activists, lawyers, bloggers and tweeters detained since February.
Bequelin said: 'The reason Ai Weiwei was arrested was because he was increasingly vocal about the state of other human rights activists ... or victims of abuse.
'With his silencing, these people have lost a powerful advocate.'