Ai Weiwei Case Poses Test for China

Ai Weiwei poses in front of his artwork in Munich, Germany, in 2009. (Joerg Koch/AFP/Getty Images)

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is one of several dozen activists arrested in China over the past few months. But as one of the most prominent, he poses a test case for the Chinese government’s resolve to silence its critics.

On Thursday, the Chinese government confirmed it was holding Ai, who had been missing since police picked him up from the Beijing airport Sunday.

Hong Lei, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a news conference on Thursday that the government is investigating Ai for “economic crimes,” though he did not elaborate further.

“This has nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression,” he said.

Ai is known internationally as an artist — his work is currently on display at Tate Modern in London — but is also well-known as a critic of the Chinese government, said Kathleen McLaughlin, GlobalPost’s correspondent in Beijing. Ai had been updating on Twitter the government’s crackdown on dissenting voices, she said.

“I think a lot of people thought he was untouchable,” McLaughlin told us by phone. “He certainly didn’t think he was. He knew what the risks were. And I think a lot of other people knew it was just a matter of time before he got in trouble.”

Normally, the government charges critics with inciting subversion, but Ai was one of a handful charged with economic crimes, she said. The increase in arrests of human rights lawyers, artists and critics was considered a pre-emptive measure by the government in light of the revolutions in the Arab world.

Although other people arrested this spring were fairly well-known in intellectual dissident circles in China, Ai is known internationally, and the U.S. State Department and European Union are among the entities who have spoken out against his arrest.

“This is an international art celebrity, and the international community is already responding pretty strongly to what’s happened to him. It’ll be interesting to see if that has any impact,” said McLaughlin.

“In the past, international opinion may have held some sway but I’m not so sure that it will now because China is more powerful now economically and politically,” she said. “And the line that they’ve always taken — that other countries should not interfere in their domestic affairs — I think they might feel they have a better position to say that now.”

Outside of the artist community and the international community, however, there hasn’t much buzz in Beijing about it, said McLaughlin. “It’s like anywhere — if it’s not on TV or on the radio or in the newspapers, people aren’t talking about it. There are a certain number of people who know him and who he is and what’s going on, but when there’s a general lack of information then people aren’t really talking about it on the street.”

NewsHour special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye recently reported from Beijing on the Chinese government’s treatment of dissidents:

Frontline recently aired a documentary about Ai. Watch an excerpt here:

This story is a feature of our World page that takes a closer look at news we either missed or lightly reported on earlier in the week. Send us your ideas for other “stories we missed” @NewsHourWorld.