We Should Have Seen Ai Weiwei's Detainment Coming

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It has been more than 24 hours since anyone has heard from Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and pro-democracy activist  detained by authorities at Beijing's Capital Airport Sunday while attempting to board a scheduled flight to Hong Kong. Police also raided Ai's studio near Beijing, questioned eight of his assistants, and placed his wife under house arrest. The lack of news and the sudden disappearance of all mentions of the artist on Chinese micro-blog Weibo have sparked fears that Ai, perhaps most famous in the West for designing the "Bird's Nest" stadium for the 2008 Olympics,  may be the latest critic of the Communist government to be charged with subversion. Looking back on some of the reports about the situation in China over the past month, some eerily prescient details stand out.

"Step by step--so quietly, in fact, that the full facts of it can be startling--China has embarked on the most intense crackdown on free expression in years." - Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, April 1

The magazine China's correspondent says the fighting in Libya and earthquake in Japan have largely overshadowed the Chinese government's "most intense crackdown on free expression in years," which started in mid-February, when Internet chatter about protests similar to the ones taking place in the Middle East began to pick up. Osnos cites a report by advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders estimating that the Chinese government has "criminally detained 26 individuals, disappeared more than 30, and put more than 200 under soft detention”over the past six weeks.

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"I told them that I’m an ordinary writer and they can’t deny me my basic rights to travel. They refused to listen. I’m dealing with a scoundrel government. I’m so outraged." - Chinese writer Liao Yiwu, quoted by The New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch on March 30

Liao, another critic of the Chinese government, was stopped at the airport and prevented from traveling from Beijing to New York for the PEN World Writers Festival in March, even though the public-security bureau initially signed off on the appearance after Liao signed a statement promising "promising not to publish any illegal works" while overseas. Ai made no such promises when he announced his intention to open a studio in Berlin last week, remarking to the German press that "the possibility for artistic expression is very small in China," and noting that authorities already destroyed one of his studios in January

"Ai Weiwei's interplay with authorities can be seen as a bellwether of how much China has changed, and how far it has to go, in terms of freedom of expression. No scene captures this better than the day he visited the Jinniu district police station in Chengdu on April 6, 2010 ... About 40 minutes after we arrived at the station, officials appeared who spoke English and asked me and New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos to step into another room. They checked our documents and told us that we would have to erase our footage since we didn't have permission to film the police. My footage survived because I secretly switched my HDV tape with a blank one. They filmed the camera screen as I turned on the color bars and 'deleted' the footage, satisfied to have proof they had carried out their orders." - Alison Klayman, director of the Frontline documentary Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei?, March 29

The eagerness of Chinese authorities not to have their treatment of Ai documented by the Western media was also on display Sunday, when, according to The Guardian, "[m]en who appeared to be plainclothes officers grabbed the phone of a Guardian journalist who photographed the scene and deleted the image" and "a uniformed man said: 'You are not allowed to be on this street. You must leave.'"
"With interviews like this, I genuinely wonder how Ai Weiwei's gotten as little (comparatively) harassment from the authorities." - Elaine Chow of Shanghaist, March 14

Chow was referring to an interview Ai conducted with Time Out Hong Kong, in which he accused the government of having "totally disappeared"  Nobel prize winner Liu Xiabio after charging him with subversion. "All the lawyers cannot see him," complained Ai, who according to his wife has not yet been allowed to consult a lawyer. Nobody can see him. I mean, come on! If you are so right, if you think justice has been served then you have to do it correctly; you cannot do it secretly."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.