|Ai Weiwei missing poster|
On Sunday April 3 China's best known contemporary artist Ai Weiwei was taken from Beijing airport as he attempted to board a flight for Hong Kong. He has not been heard from since. Ai, who is also a prolific filmmaker, architect and designer, has long been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government. His domestic and international profile, however, led many to believe he was unlikely to suffer the harsh treatment dealt out to many lesser-known opponents of the regime. In the words of The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones on April 4, his arrest is being interpreted as an attempt to “stamp out the idea that any individual is greater than the law of the state.”
The “law of the state” in this case—as in many others—is proving very flexible, since Ai Weiwei has not been formally charged and none of his friends or family, including his wife and mother, is aware of his current whereabouts. Various other members of Ai's circle have also been arbitrarily detained for varying periods, and his associates Wen Tao, Zhang Jinsong, Hu Mingfen and Liu Zhenggang are all still missing at the time of writing.
Unfortunately Ai Weiwei's case is just the tip of the iceberg. After anonymous calls for a Chinese “Jasmine Revolution” emulating recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East circulated online in mid-February, the Chinese authorities moved swiftly to neutralise the perceived threat. Initially political activists were targeted, including lawyers and well-known bloggers. In March, they also began exerting pressure on parts of China's creative community.
The China Human Rights Defender website claims, “The Chinese government has criminally detained a total of 39 individuals since mid-February.” Seventeen of these are still in detention, nine have been charged and are awaiting trial and three have already been sent to camps for “re-education through labour.” The claims are supported by a map detailing the names and locations of those detained (see chrdnet.org). Earlier this month the same organisation reported around 200 others have been placed under other various forms of “soft detention”—in other words, house arrest.
In addition, an unknown number of people across China have been subject to a ramping up of intrusive surveillance, harassment and interference in their daily lives. On March 18 for example, I visited the academic and documentary filmmaker Ai Xiaoming (no relation to Ai Weiwei) at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. Ai has made numerous low budget documentaries focusing on controversial issues such as the spread of AIDS in rural China through unregulated blood collections.
After a translator and I met Ai on campus, we headed to her nearby apartment. As we approached her residential block around five minutes later we were intercepted by a man—presumably a plain-clothed security officer—who addressed Ai Xiaoming by name and asked what we were doing. Our questioner was joined a few moments later by another man and a woman, while two other men stood watching a few metres away. None of the group was uniformed or offered any form of identification. The first man informed Ai Xiaoming that we needed to accompany him to the campus security office (Bao wei chu), while the woman asked my translator and I our names, occupations and places of origin.
Ai Xiaoming agreed to accompany the 'officers' if they let my translator and I go. As my companion and I made a hurried exit we were followed by other plain-clothed personnel into the subway station next to the campus.
Ai Xiaoming later contacted me and stated she suspects her phone is tapped and her email account has been hacked. Our experience shows her apartment is certainly under surveillance, although she says she was unaware of this until the incident on March 18.
Although certain filmmakers and artists have long been under surveillance and subject to phone taps, since the 1980s it has been rare for Chinese authorities to physically prevent artists meeting with foreigners. It is a disturbing development that the kinds of restrictions that more radical political activists have long endured are now being extended to established creative figures.
In more bad news for China's film community, on April 18 organisers announced the cancellation of the Eighth Documentary Film Festival China, an event staged annually since 2004 in the far-flung Beijing suburb of Tongzhou. The festival is one of a handful of regular events in China showcasing films made outside the country's state-controlled approval system. The 2011 edition had been planned for the first week of May. Artistic Director Zhu Rikun was quoted in the English-language edition of Chinese newspaper The Global Times as saying, “We cancelled it ourselves. The overall situation was tense, and we had received a lot of pressure.” The report did not elaborate on the nature of the pressure or its source.
In the current environment, Chinese-born foreign nationals have found that holding a foreign passport does not necessarily protect them, as the Australian novelist and blogger Yang Hengjun discovered when he disappeared in the city of Guangzhou on March 27. He resurfaced the following weekend and was allowed to return to Australia via Hong Kong, but he declined to elaborate on his experience, telling The Age, “I can’t keep having media attention and continue my pursuit of democracy in China…The more questions I answer outside China, then the less I can do inside.”
It remains to be seen whether the present crackdown represents a longer-term hardening in the government’s attitude or simply a panicked, typically heavy-handed response to events overseas. Either way, it’s a sobering reminder of the immense arbitrary power wielded by China’s ruling party and how quickly cultural liberalisation can be wound back when the state feels threatened. Even if all the detained figures are released tomorrow, the atmosphere of fear will linger, intensifying the already pervasive self-censorship that exists in China's media and cultural spheres. This is, of course, precisely the intention. The message from the authorities is clear—the right to creative expression in China is on always on notice.
Dan Edwards is currently completing a book and PhD thesis at Melbourne's Monash University on China's independent documentary movement. Formerly the editor of OnScreen, he has written extensively about contemporary Chinese cinema for RealTime (see his Archive Highlight) and on his Screening China blog.
RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. web
© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to email@example.com